Harvest at the Three-Quarter Pole: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame, with Solid Yields

Late last week, we welcomed our first major picks of Roussanne and Mourvedre into the cellar.

Roussanne in tank

Mourvedre in tankAnd with that, the home stretch of harvest officially began. There will be a lot of harvest chalkboards that look essentially like this one over the next couple of weeks:

Harvest chalkboard Roussanne and Mourvedre

Where we are, one week into October, is remarkably similar to where we'd expect to be, if we were predicting at the beginning of the year.  We're done with early grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  We're mostly done with what we consider mid-harvest grapes like Grenache and Tannat.  And we're just getting into our late grapes, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  Given that we're comparatively heavily planted in these late grapes, we still have more fruit out than many of our neighbors.  Still, we expect to be harvesting pretty steadily for the next two weeks, and to be done before the end of the month.  If this seems late, it's likely a matter of perspective, because most of our recent years have been early.  While 2013, 2014, and 2016 were all done by mid-October, our average finish date of harvest this millennium has been October 29th.

With the first complete blocks harvested, we've been able to get the animals back into the vineyard.  Right now, they're in the head-trained vines on our Scruffy Hill block, visible from Vineyard Drive if you're coming in from the south:

Animals back on Scruffy

Although we're where we'd expect to be in the harvest sequence, it hasn't always been smooth getting here.  Harvest began with a significant heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row.  We then got nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. In the last two weeks, temperatures have been more or less normal for the season, without any noteworthy heat waves, and with only one day significantly cooler than normal, a bizarrely chilly October 3rd where the sun didn't break through the fog until noon and the day topped out at 64°F:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal Sept Oct

For the month of September, we had 11 days warmer than seasonal averages, and 19 days cooler than average.  Even with the heat wave that began the month, our average high was 86.3°F, two degrees cooler than average. These cooler days allowed the vines to recover from the stress of their early-season heat wave, and allowed the cellar to free up tanks and get ready for the next push.  A graph of the harvest by week shows the ebb and flow. Normally, you'd expect a sort of bell curve, with thin tails at the beginning and end and the busiest weeks in the middle.  Not this year:

Harvest by Week

In terms of yields, with a significant number of grapes done, things are coming into focus.  It looks like yields are up from 2016, and a bit above average for the first time since 2012.  The varieties we've finished harvesting are up an average of 32.9%, with the most noteworthy recovery from Marsanne, whose yields had been so depressed by the five years of drought that we were getting less than one ton per acre last year:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc ? 7.7 ?
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne ? 47.0  ?
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre ? 62.7  ?
Tannat 18.3 12.3  +48.8%
Counoise ? 18.0 ?
Total so Far 234.2 176.2 +32.9%

Even with the higher yields, sugars are up a bit this year, which is a sign of the health of the vines.  Thank you, rainy winter!  The growing season, the yields, and the character and numbers of the grapes at harvest remind us most, so far at least, of 2005: also the first wet year after a string of dry years, with a long growing season and a relatively cool harvest period.  We aren't likely to go as late as we did that year -- November 7th -- but if we get a similarly robust vintage, we'll be happy. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the last couple of weeks of grapes on the vines. By the end of the month, we'll have to wait another year for views like this:

Counoise on the vine early October


Why Paso Robles is So Well Suited to Late-Ripening Grapes

This morning, when I got back to the winery after a week on the road, my first order of business was to check in on how harvest was going. I was happy to learn that things picked up a bit last week. After more than two weeks of chilly fall weather, it had warmed back up, with eight days of perfect ripening weather: daytime highs between 83°F and 93°F, and lows between 41°F and 51°F.

And still, when I asked Chelsea how she was feeling, she responded, "this is definitely the first October 1st I can remember where we haven't been stressing about tank space."  Although harvest picked up from the glacial pace it was in mid-September, we are still waiting on most of our Marsanne, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.  Why? Blame the cold nights. Here's Neil, this morning, next to our first pick of Mourvedre. It was 52°F at 8:30am:

Neil looking chilly

We're used to this here, but most of the Mediterranean world is finishing up harvest about now. Beaucastel's Facebook page (for example) shows that they brought in their last fruit on September 29th:

It's not like this year is an outlier for us, either.  Over the last 15 years, we've averaged a last pick off the estate on October 29th, and our earliest-ever finish was October 7th in 2013.  Six times in those 15 years we were still picking in November. 

To explain why grapes take so long to ripen in Paso Robles, I'll have to detour briefly into some basic plant physiology. Bear with me here, or just skip to the end of the bullet points if you'd like the conclusions without the chemistry. There are a number of different processes which limit a grapevine's ability to photosynthesize at low temperatures. These include:

  • The tendency of plants to close their stomata (pores in the leaves) in response to cold, limiting respiration and the uptake of CO2
  • Carboxylation (sorry for the long, technical term) is the first stage of photosynthesis, whereby CO2 molecules are turned into an acid known as 3-PGA. Carboxylation efficiency declines as temperature declines
  • The electron transport capacity of plants is reduced at low temperatures
  • An enzyme known as Rubisco, essential to the first step of carbon fixation in photosynthesis, is inefficient at low temperatures

So, in essence, at cold temperatures, plants take in less CO2 and are less efficient in turning the CO2 that they do take in into the starches that fuel both plant growth and fruit ripening.  Grapevine ripening proceeds most efficiently between 30°C and 35°C (86°F and 95°F).  It drops dramatically below 25°C (77°F), and reaches zero at 10°C (50°F).  A summary graph from a technical paper published in Plant, Cell, and the Environment shows the combined effects pretty clearly:

Figure-7-CO2-saturated-maximum-rates-of-photosynthesis-meanSE-of-Semillon-leaves-as

For context, take a look at the temperature curve for the most recent 24 hour period:

Temperature C by Hour early October

You can see that while it did get warm, topping out around 30°C (86°F) yesterday afternoon, it only lasted until sunset just after 6pm.  By 8pm it was already down to 20°C (68°F). It bottomed out at 6.4°C (43.6°F) at 6am and wouldn't rise back up above 20°C until noon today.  So, over the last 24 hours, our vineyard spent 5 daylight hours over the 25°C temperature at which photosynthesis happens efficiently (2pm-6pm yesterday). Five other daylight hours (9am-1pm today) saw temperatures at levels where some photosynthesis can happen. Two daylight hours (7am-8am today) saw no photosynthesis at all because it was too cold.  And for 12 hours the sun was below the horizon. 

We are far from the only, or even the most extreme, location in Paso Robles.  The temperature grid from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows other areas that dropped near freezing last night.  Most show diurnal temperature swings of 40°-50°F. 

Temperature Grid October 2nd 2017

So, what does all this mean? That once you get into the end of the growing season here in Paso Robles, it's hard for grapevines to do too much photosynthesizing. That's a benefit, because you can get the last little bits of ripening on your late-ripening varieties slowly, so they continue to build complexity without accumulating too much sugar.  In general, the longer your grapes can stay on the vine before they get to the ripeness levels you want, the more complexity your wine has.  That's why a generally accepted bit of wine wisdom says that the best examples of different grape varieties can be found at the northern limit of their ripening range. So, the best Sauvignon Blancs tend to come from the Loire, and not Bordeaux. The best Pinot Noir tends to come from Burgundy, and not the Languedoc.  And the best California Chardonnay tends to come from cool coastal pockets where the fog slips in from the Pacific, not from the Central Valley.

Of course, at some point, you do need to get things ripe.  Grapes that don't make it to good ripeness produce wines that are green and bitter: no one's idea of a pleasurable drink. But here too Paso Robles has an advantage: that we don't tend to get our first serious rain until mid-November.  If we need to wait, we wait.

Hopefully, this particular waiting game is over for a while. But if it's not, I'm still confident we'll be OK. Thanks, Paso Robles.


A cool interlude slows down Harvest 2017 as we reach its mid-point

Ten days into the 2017 harvest, our winery crew was looking harried. Seven consecutive 105°+ days produced an avalanche of fruit. Right as we were genuinely wondering what we would do if the heat kept up, the weather broke, and now, two weeks later, it still hasn't really put itself back together. Take a look at our high temperatures compared to seasonal averages:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

Since the heat wave broke on September 4th, we've had only two days above our seasonal averages, and the average high (84.1°) has been more than five degrees cooler than we'd expect.  At first, there was a bit of a backlog of fruit ready to pick, but by the time we got to this past weekend, we were back in waiting mode:

Harvest chalkboard interlude

To have a slower period like this in mid-September is a luxury. We've been able to free up tank space ahead of the next wave of fruit we know will be coming, and we've been able to spend a lot of time out in the vineyards testing, waiting for the right moment.  And the pace really has slowed.  After 110 and 142(!) ton weeks to start harvest, last week saw just 54 tons arrive at the winery, and we've only picked 16 tons so far this week.  

So, with 322 tons received, we're at or just past the mid-point on our harvest, based on our estimates. And now that we've finished picking some of our early grapes, it gives us a chance to assess where yields are compared to what we'd expected and compared to other years.  And things look solid. The 19 tons of Viognier we picked was up about 33% compared to 2016.  Vermentino (22 tons) is up about 15%. We're not quite done with Syrah, but the 33 tons we've picked is close to last year's 37 tons. The 4.7 tons of Marsanne we picked is almost identical to last year's 4.5 tons, though still very low.  Overall, I'm guessing we end up slightly up from last year's numbers, but not by much.

The cellar has been its usual dance, with fruit coming in (albeit at a more moderate rate) while other tanks are fermenting away and yet others are being pressed off to make space. One fun consequence has been that we have Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and even Grenache Rose fermenting at the same time.  Check out the colors:

Three colors of grenache

The colors aren't only inside the winery. Outside the vineyard, it's starting to look -- as well as feel -- like fall.  As the vines start to lose chlorophyll, the autumn oranges and reds come out.  It's more dramatic on some grapes than others, but Syrah and Mourvedre are particularly lovely.  This Mourvedre vine is from right outside the winery; anyone coming to visit in the next few weeks should see a scene very much like this:

Mourvedre head trained

So, where are we, at harvest's mid-point?  Largely done with our Patelin picks, with the exception of some Mourvedre and a little Grenache and Syrah. Off our estate, we're done with our early whites (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) and mostly done with Grenache Blanc and Syrah. We've made a start on Grenache, and today got our first Tannat into the cellar. Next week, we'll turn in a serious way to Grenache, and maybe get started on the later-ripening Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.

It feels somehow appropriate that we've filled in the left-hand column of our harvest chalkboard. With the forecast set for it to warm back up next week, it feels like we can dispense with the halftime entertainment and get on with the second half.

Chalkboard Sept 21

We'll be back for the second half kickoff, after this break.


Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

Many years harvest starts gently, with a pick every few days as our vineyard and cellar crew ease into harvest. Not in 2017.

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

On August 25th, we brought in the first Viognier grapes for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. August 29th saw the Pinot Noir come in from my dad’s property in the Templeton Gap. And then, on August 30th, the floodgates opened. We got the first pick of Viognier off our own estate, and the first Grenache Blanc for the Patelin Blanc, more than 17 tons combined. The next day saw more Viognier for Patelin Blanc and our first Vermentino and Syrah off the estate, 13 more tons. The first day of September saw 50 tons enter the cellar, one of our busiest days ever: three different Syrah blocks off our estate, plus Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc and Grenache for Patelin Rosé. September 2nd (a Saturday) brought in 20 more tons of Viognier and Grenache. Sunday the 3rd was a much-needed day of rest, but Labor Day Monday was a labor indeed, with 29 more tons, evenly split between Syrah for the Patelin red and Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache off the estate.

All told, just over one week into harvest, we’ve brought 147 tons of fruit into the cellar. How unusual is that? It’s unprecedented. Looking back over our last several harvests, I don’t see a single week where we brought in over 100 tons.  And it’s even more unusual for so early in the harvest season; look at how much fruit we harvested in the first ten days the last decade:

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

Now there were a few vintages in here with smaller crops (2009, 2011, 2015), and before 2010, we didn't have as much early fruit because the Patelin program -- mostly based on earlier ripening grapes like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Syrah -- didn't exist yet. But still, that's quite a beginning. What caused this avalanche of fruit? A ten-day long stretch of some of the hottest weather Paso Robles has recorded.  For the nine days beginning August 25th and ending September 2nd, the lowest high temperature we recorded at the vineyard was 102.3°F. Seven days topped 105°, and we reached a scorching peak of 111.5° on September 2nd. During this period, seven different days broke the all-time record high for that day at the Paso Robles Airport.

It's not that 100+ days are unusual in Paso Robles. We average about 15 of them per year. But to have so many, back to back, right as the grapes are approaching ripeness, has a dramatic impact.

You might well be wondering how the vines held up through this heat wave. The answer is really pretty well. The overall health of the vineyard, thanks to the generous rainfall we received last winter and the ongoing focus on soil nutrition provided by our vineyard team and our Biodynamic program, has been outstanding. The canopies are notably lusher than in recent years, with some blocks looking like jungles. All this leaf area helps shade the clusters and keep them from singeing in the blazing sun. And it helps the vines photosynthesize. In other years, when we’ve seen hot stretches, the vines shut down photosynthesis to conserve water, and the only progress you see – if you can call it progress – comes from the grapes dehydrating, when sugars and acids both rise as water evaporates, while seed and skin tannins stay green. At the extreme, this can produce wines that are tannic, alcoholic, and green: not a good combination.

But this year, we saw ripening continue (and in fact accelerate) through the heat wave. Sugars went up, acids came down, seeds turned from green to brown, and flavors developed nicely. What was remarkable was the rate at which this happened, with some blocks jumping 1-2° Brix a day. So the windows in which we needed to pick to have grapes in balance were shorter. In conditions like these, you have to have the capacity to get the fruit off the vines as it ripens, and be prepared in the cellar for them all to come tumbling in at once.

And tumble it did.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I fielded three separate inquiries from journalists last week about whether we were able to find the picking crew we needed. Farm labor is, after all, scarce in California anyway, between the high cost of living and the competition with other crops. And the hostile turn the national immigration climate has taken in recent months has added additional stresses.  I have never been more grateful for the decision that we made back in 1996 to give our field crew year-round employment. And yet even with the fruit we contract for as a part of the Patelin program, our growers have been able to find the picking crew they need. So while everyone I talk to is concerned about the future availability of vineyard crew, it seems like for this year at least, it's not yet at a crisis point.

The quality of what has come into the cellar looks good. Sugars are a touch higher than we’ve seen in recent years, with Viognier and Syrah both coming off the vineyard between 24° and 25° Brix, whereas in recent years 22-24° Brix was more normal. But acids are good, balance seems on point, and the flavors are luscious and focused.

Despite the heat-accelerated first week, the start to harvest was not that early. An August 30th beginning off the estate is almost exactly what I projected a month ago, and less than a week ahead of our long-term average. This comparatively normal start time (after several years of mid-August beginnings) is thanks in part to the later beginning to the growing season from the wet, relatively cool winter, and in part to the cool stretch that we saw in mid-August. It’s hard to remember now, given the week long inferno we just experienced, but between August 14th and August 23rd our average high was 82°F and our average low 53°F, with some genuinely fall-like days.

Looking forward, we’re hoping that things slow down a bit now that the heat wave broke on Monday.  Typically, at harvest time, the cooler interludes allow us some breathing room, in which we can press off lots and free up the tanks filled during the previous hot stretch.  This week has been moderate, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 50s. The long-term forecast predicts more of the same. That's absolutely fine with us.

Meanwhile, if you see a winemaker out at a bar in the next few days, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it.


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

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


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:

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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.