Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

19944260_10155116174572415_3635325097682258526_o

It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

20170721_103051

Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.


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!

In the winter, west Paso Robles is a rain forest. In the summer, it's a desert.

I was struck recently by a headline posted recently by a Seattle-dwelling friend of mine: Seattle just broke a 122-year-old record for rain. The total rainfall for this famously rainy city between October 2016 and April 2017? 44.67".

Here at Tablas Creek, over the same period, we've received 41.57" of rain.  No, you aren't reading that wrong. The rainfall we've received this past winter would be one of the wettest winters ever recorded in Seattle.  So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the below landscape (taken down near our creek a few months ago) could be straight out of the Pacific Northwest:

Lichen draped oaks

And while 2016-17 was quite a wet winter here, winters like it aren't all that rare.  Looking just over the last 20 years, this is the fifth winter that our weather station recorded 37" or more of rainfall here: 

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

Although the winter of 2016-17 was an outlier, our average rainfall here at the vineyard (25") is still pretty wet.  Other areas that average 25" of rain include lots of places in the upper Midwest, Texas, and northern California.  Also Chateauneuf du Pape, Alsace, and Burgundy.  What makes our rainfall here extraordinary is that almost all of our rain comes in a six-month period between November and April.  Take a look at our average rainfall by month at the vineyard:

Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

During the six wet months, we get 92% of our annual rainfall and average 3.82" of rain per month.  If we were to extrapolate this to an annual basis, that's nearly 46" of rain, which you see in climates like New York City, Boston, Columbia MO, and Wilmington NC.  Seattle, by contrast, receives 38" per year.

If you look on the flip side at our six dry months, we average 0.35" of rain per month May-October.  On an annual basis, that's 4.14", slightly less than the city of Las Vegas (5") and slightly more than Lake Havasu, AZ (3.8").

How unusual is this rainfall distribution for a wine region?  Extremely.  Take a look at three regions in Europe.  First, Dijon, in the heart of Burgundy, which receives nearly the same amount of rainfall on an annual basis as we do, but with an almost-equal distribution each month (note that these graphs are all from the fascinating site climate-data.org, on which you can find similar information for thousands of locations around the globe):

Climate-graph-dijon

Maybe a more Mediterranean region like Tuscany?  The city of Florence sees about the same amount of rain we receive on an annual basis, and a distribution with slightly drier summers than winters, but nothing close to the degree we see here:

Climate-graph-florence

Chateauneuf du Pape is a better match still, though their two rainiest months are September-October:

Climate-graph-chateauneuf

In order to find an Old World rainfall distribution similar to ours, you have to go all the way into the Eastern Mediterranean. The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon would be a great match, if they only received 175% as much rain as they do:

Climate-grap-bekaah

OK, that was a lot of graphs.  But it's important, I think, if you're trying to wrap your head around the climate here in west Paso Robles, to pay just as much attention to the winters (wet) and nights (cold) as one does to the dry, hot summer days.  For visitors who come during the summer, the heat and dry landscape can make the cool green hillsides of winter seem like a mirage.  But they are two facets of this same climate: a climate in which massive oak trees grow draped with lichen, and in which dry-farmed grapevines can reach down 20 feet into limestone clay to pull out enough moisture to survive through five months of negligible precipitation.  As a bonus, it rarely rains during the harvest season, when the grapes are vulnerable.

Desert in the summer, and rain forest in the winter?  We'll take it. Even if it is hard to believe.


One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


Budbreak 2017: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame

After our very wet beginning to 2017, I was hopeful that we'd see a delayed start to the growing season, at least compared to the past couple of years.  But after a chilly beginning to March, including frosts 5 out of the first 7 nights, we got a very spring-like two-week stretch starting March 8th, with sun, no frost, and consistent days in the upper 70s and low 80s. So, it wasn't a total surprise when I got a photo from our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg with a photo of a sprouting Grenache Blanc vine on March 13th:

Budbreak 2017

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.

Budbreak isn't uniform. Different grape varieties sprout at different times, just as they ripen at different times.  On a ramble out through the vineyard today, there were several grapes that were out significantly, including Grenache Blanc (unsurprisingly), Viognier, Vermentino, and Grenache (below):

Budbreak 2017_grenache

By contrast, our later-budding grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre and (this year, at least) Syrah are still mostly or entirely dormant. This Counoise block is just down the hill from the Grenache block I photographed above, without a green sprout in evidence:

Budbreak 2017_counoise

While this year is two weeks later than our record-early 2016, it's still on the early side historically: tied with 2014 and 2015 as our second-earliest in the last ten years:

2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

Weather_west 2017 tempsWhy was this year still relatively early, when other recent wet years like 2010 and 2011 were two weeks or more later? It turns out that this winter, while it was wet, wasn't really that cold. Normally, in California, the two go together, as the clouds that bring the rain also limit the ability of daytime temperatures to rise out of the 50s. But most of our storms this winter were relatively warm, of the "pineapple express" or "atmospheric river" variety originating in the South Pacific waters near Hawaii. And most of the cold weather came early, with 32 of our 41 below-freezing nights coming November-January. The graphic to the right shows that most of San Luis Obispo County was on the warm side of average, historically. (It, and a great explanation behind the data, come from Daniel Swain's must-read blog Weather West.) Click on it for a larger view.

While budbreak always feels hopeful, it also comes with a certain degree of risk. Dormant vines can freeze without danger, but new growth is susceptible to freezing; April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011. And we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May. So far, we've avoided anything damaging, and the medium-term forecast doesn't look too threatening. But we've still got more than a month to go before we can feel safe.

Still, it's hard to feel too apprehensive when there is so much life springing into visibility around you. Please join me in welcoming the 2017 vintage.


January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


Photo of the Day: A Ridiculous Sunset

Winter in Paso Robles typically brings great sunsets.  The moisture in the air brings clouds -- rare in the summer -- and the lower sun angles mean that the colors last longer in the evenings. The shorter days mean that they're often happening while I'm still at work. Tonight's wasn't a given, though. It was chilly and overcast most of the day, and it wasn't until a half hour or so before the sun disappeared behind the western hills that the clouds broke up enough to let the sun's rays through. But oh, what a reward:

Sunset feb 2017

This time of year brings my favorite Paso Robles landscape.  The winter's rainfall has meant that you have deep, lush greens everywhere. Soon, we'll get an explosion of wildflowers, particularly after this wet winter.  And the sky puts on pyrotechnic displays many evenings.  There was actually a rainbow (not really photographable, though I tried) opposite this sunset. 

If you've only experienced Paso Robles in summer or fall, make a point to come out in the winter or spring next time. You won't believe your eyes.


January 2017 is Tablas Creek's wettest month ever

Sometime around 6:30 this morning, as the third of three powerful storms pushed through the Paso Robles area, our rain gauge for January passed 16.32" for the month and displaced February 1998 as the wettest single month in Tablas Creek's history.  Our running total (with much of this storm still to pass, and 9 days left in January) is now 17.17", more than triple the normal average for January, our wettest month:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 11.55.13 AM

For the year, we're at 23.88", just about at our 20-year average for the winter rainy season and about more than 90% of the way toward the 26" that old-timers quote as the long-term annual "normal" for our pocket of the Paso Robles Adelaida District. You can see, looking at the last 20 years, that we're still quite a ways from matching our wettest-ever rainy season, 2004-05:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 12.25.48 PM

Of course, we're still only just past the midpoint of the normal winter rainy season. It seems like we'll get another inch or so in the aftermath of this storm, and February-June brings another 11.47" of rain on average.  That would put us up above 35" of rain, on par with the last two wet winters, 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Even with the recent rain, we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in. Between the winters of 2011/12 and 2015/16, we built up a deficit of more than 54" (compared to that 26" average).  So, it will take more than one wet winter to recover.  But between the reports of greatly increased capacity in our local reservoirs and the news that most of Northern California has been declared free of drought it's clear that the rain has made a measurable difference.

As for the vineyard, it's wet. Springs have sprouted in low-lying areas, and enough water has drained to cause Las Tablas Creek to flow during more than the immediate aftermath of a storm for the first time in four years.  You venture into the vineyard at peril of losing your footwear.

FullSizeRender-6

After this low pressure system passes through on Tuesday, we're forecast for a week or so of dry weather.  That's perfect.  It will allow the surface water to drain down into the limestone clay layers, and give the cover crop a week of sun.  And then the long-term forecast suggests a return to a wet pattern in early February.  That's perfect too.  At this point, we're feeling good about where we are.  Anything more at this point is gravy.


December in the Vineyard: An Early Winter Assessment and Photo Essay

If you look out at the vineyard, it doesn't look like we're in a drought. The hillsides are impossibly green, the ground is wet enough to make you question whether it's worth even salvaging your shoes after a vineyard walk, and the water-loving winter plants seem happy enough.  The cloudy days we've mostly been enjoying give everything a soft, diffuse light.

Green layers

And yet, we're really hoping this Thursday's forecast storm breaks the recent trend we've seen where storms come in at the low end of (or even below) the range for which they're forecast.  Since the beginning of November, we've had 7 days with measurable rainfall.  Those 7 days totaled just 1.26 inches, with the only significantly wet day coming November 20th, and bringing just under two-thirds of an inch of rainfall.  After a good start in October, we've now fallen behind a normal year's pace (note that the December 2016 information is only through yesterday, whereas the average is for the entire month):

Rainfall Winter 2016-2017

You can see that while November was about as much drier than average as October was wetter than average, we have a long way to go to get December up to normal precipitation. Hopefully, the atmospheric river (one of my favorite terms) that is forming over the eastern Pacific right now will bring the forecast rain (possibly multiple inches) to us later this week, instead of having the bulk of the precipitation stay north of us (as it generally did in November) or impact areas south and west of us (as the storms so far in December have done). Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, we're taking advantage of the vineyard's early start on its cover crop (thanks to that October rain) and have been moving our animal herd throughout the vineyard. One of our new Shepherd Nathan Stuart's first suggestions was that we hadn't been moving the animals often enough, so now we're moving our flock every couple of days, and they've already grazed a large swath of the vineyard. They're currently on the hillside above the winery, and will be working their way down the hill over the next week.  It should make for some fun viewing for anyone visiting our tasting room.  I snapped this photo over our solar panels: sustainability in action on two fronts:

Animals behind solar

The frosty weather we got last week took care of the issues we'd been seeing with extraneous out-of-season growth, and the vineyard is now properly dormant. Note the difference a few weeks makes.  First, take a look at a hillside Grenache block from a photo I took just after that burst of rain that peaked on 11/20.  The clouds were clearing, and the sun illuminated the new growth in an electric green:

Green Hillsides Moving Sun

It's not the same block (though it is Grenache Blanc) but a photo from Friday shows a much more traditional winter scene:

Dormant hillside

The winter interplay of clouds and sun have provided some great backdrops, which make for quite a contrast to the unbroken summer blue that many guests are used to.  These only get more spectacular at dusk, when winter provides some amazing sunsets.  I'll leave you with a couple of photos, first of a daytime sky I shared on our Instagram page yesterday (if you like photos like these; that's really our focus over there).

Daytime sky

And finally one sunset photo, which I love not for the drama of the clouds (the sky was a beautiful peach, but relatively uniform) but instead for the silhouettes of our vines and one solitary owl box at the western edge of our property:

Sunset

With our early rain, we're still in good shape, if it gets wet. Let's hope that starts on Thursday.


Anxiously Awaiting Winter, When We Want it to Freeze

Vineyards in Paso Robles worry about frost every year. Springtime frosts can be devastating, killing the new growth and forcing the vine to dip into its reserves to re-sprout from secondary buds. We've lost around 40% of our crop from April frosts in years like 2001, 2009, and 2011.  I've written (more times than I care to remember) about the nightly worry we face between bud break (typically in late March) and mid-May, when our nights have warmed enough that we're out of the danger zone.

We're worrying about frost now. But not because we might lose production if it freezes.  Instead, we're worried that it hasn't frozen yet.  

Three weeks ago, most of the vineyard looked dormant.  Leaves were off varieties like Roussanne, Counoise, Grenache and Mourvedre, all of which worked late into the season to finish ripening their grapes, exhausting themselves in the process. The earlier grapes that had to expend less energy were brilliantly colored in typical autumn splendor.  All that's normal enough for late October.  But with the nice rain we received in mid- and late-October, many of these blocks have sprouted new growth. A Mourvedre vine behind the winery is a good example:

New Fall Growth in Mourvedre

Ironically, a lack of frost in the fall can have the same negative impact as a late frost in the spring, as a grapevine spends its stored energy on growth that won't be usable to ripen the fruit.  It will freeze, sooner or later, and this growth will die.  We'll come through and prune during dormancy, and when the vine sprouts for the 2017 season in April, it will do so with less vigor than it otherwise would have because of these depleted reserves.

Typically, this fall growth isn't a problem in Paso Robles, because we usually get our first frost more or less in conjunction with our first rain. But this year, the rain we've received so far has been tropical in origin, instead of moving south from Alaska with Arctic air behind it. 

That's not to say the rain we've received has been unwelcome; getting rain this time of year has meant that the cover crop is already well established and we're unlikely to see much erosion should we really get dumped on.  And drought, right now, is a bigger worry for us than a little pointless end-of-season growth.  It's going to freeze sooner or later; in a typical winter, we see 30 or 40 nights drop below freezing, and in December and January frost is a sure thing. 

But the scene below, as pretty as it is with bright green grass and autumn colors on the vines, isn't ideal. Each week we continue to see warm nights will sap a little of next year's vigor.  Winter can come any time it likes, please.

Nov 2016 Foliage + Cover Crop growth