Mid-July veraison suggests 2016 threatens to be our earliest-ever harvest

When you spend two weeks away in late June and early July, as I did, the vineyard can look quite different when you return than when you left. When I left, most berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. When I got out into the vineyard yesterday, things had changed. The grape berries and clusters looked more mature.  The vines' deep green canopies contrasted dramatically with the midsummer blue sky. Quantities look respectable: perhaps somewhat smaller than average but better than 2015.  The vines look remarkably healthy, with really no significant visible effects of the week-plus of 100-degree weather we saw in late June.

And, when I got to the top of the Syrah block, as I thought I might, 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. A few of the most advanced Syrah clusters:

Veraison 2016

So far, of our red grapes, only Syrah has shown any color change. And only on the tops of the hills, which are typically most advanced, and even there there are many more all-green clusters than there are those like the ones above.  A good example is the photo below, where a more advanced cluster on the left is visible next to another cluster on the same vine that is still entirely green:

Veraison 2016_2

The transformation between hard, sour green berries and sweet, soft, red berries takes some time, and when it starts depends both on how early the vine begins its spring growth and on how fast the ripening progresses, determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak. Looking at the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, suggests that we shouldn't be surprised to be seeing an early veraison, given that 2016 is among the warmest years since 1997:

Veraison 2016 - Degree Days - Resized

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 18th, but a warm August and a light crop load meant that we began harvest just 39 days later, on August 26th. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below:

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 ? ?

It's clear that we're looking at another early harvest this year. Even if things cool off dramatically -- and there's nothing in the long-term forecast that suggests they will -- we're almost certainly starting harvest in August.  Our longest-ever veraison-harvest interim, from the very cool (and plentiful) 2010 vintage, was 49 days. 49 days from July 13th is August 31st. If, instead, we see an interim like 2015 or 2007, both of which saw small crops and warm weather, we could start as early as August 21st. If we did, that would be our earliest beginning ever. I'm guessing we end up toward the early end of that range, but probably not right at the minimum, given that our crop levels look somewhat better than they did in 2015. But we'll see. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. While Syrah is almost always first, Grenache and Mourvedre won't be far behind. Counoise is almost always last. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. Meanwhile, expect our winemaking team to take some vacation and rest up for the coming frenzy, and while they're here to be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush.

But while none of this is a surprise, it's still a significant milestone. We now know how much sand is in the hourglass. And that it's been flipped over.


Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard: How Eliminating Surface Grasses Conserves Water

Over the course of about six weeks, the vineyard has gone from looking like:

Lush cover crop

To looking like:

Scruffy long view

This transformation takes place as the rainy season ends, and our focus shifts from encouraging a cover crop to hold the topsoil in place to making sure that the vines (rather than the cover crops) get the bulk of the water that is stored in the absorbent limestone-rich soils.  Think of each plant that's growing in a given plot of land as like a wick, with its roots delving into the soil for available moisture.  If we had overabundant water, we might want to leave some surface weeds to keep levels more reasonable.  Instead, in our California climate, eliminating competition from grasses and other surface plants is an essential part of our ability to dry farm.  Tilling in the cover crop also allows the insects and microorganisms in the soil to start breaking down the surface biomass accumulated during the winter growth into nutrients that the vines will draw from in the coming months.  Finally, the loosening of the soil creates an insulating layer at the surface that helps conserve the water deeper down.

The main tool we use to turn our cover crops under is the spader, shown in action below.  The row to the right has been mowed but not turned under, while the spader is chopping up the topsoil with a collection of tooth-like blades that penetrate deep into the topsoil:

Spader at work

The end result, when a whole block has been spaded, is a manicured surface from which weeds rarely re-sprout, like the head-trained Tannat block below:

Spaded area in Tannat

We're only about 30% done with turning the cover crop under, and the work will continue for another month. The one section that we have finished is Scruffy Hill, and it looks amazing.  Two shots follow, beginning with the fully leafed out Grenache block, looking down over the less-advanced Mourvedre vines below:

Scruffy Grenache vine

And a view that shows you a close-up of the soils. Tilling in the surface weeds allows you to see just how calcareous the soils are:

Scruffy soil view

Pretty soon, the whole vineyard will look like this, just in time for summer.


Reassessing Winter 2015-2016 After March's Rain

Three weeks ago, we were seeing our earliest-ever budbreak, driven by a warm, sunny February that saw just one winter storm pass through and a total of just 1.55" of rain. Articles from around the state echoed San Francisco Chronicle's headline What if El Nino is a big bust?.  Far from the promise of an El Niño that would put a measurable dent in California's historic drought, Paso Robles and points south had fallen below historical averages for winter rainfall.

Fast forward three weeks, and things look better, if perhaps not as much better as we'd like them to look.  So far in March, we've seen a welcome 6.32" of rain, bringing our yearly total up to 19.33". This is already better than what we received the last four years, if only about 85% of what we'd expect by this point in an average winter.  We do still have another month where we can reasonably expect rainfall, albeit usually not a huge additional amount.  The chart below will give you a sense of how this year has stacked up compared to normal for us (click on it to see it bigger):

Winter Rainfall

We've had three months (July, January, and March) with above-average rainfall, six months below, and three-plus still to go.  With 10 days still to go in March, we're already at 150% of normal March rainfall.  But while I'd like to project that forward and assume we'd get another couple of inches before the end of the month, there's nothing promising in the forecast.  So, assuming we get something like average rainfall in April and May, we're likely looking at somewhere in the 22" range.  That's a lot better than what we received the last four years (13"-15" each year) but still only about 85% of our 25" historical average.

That said, the vineyard looks like it's thriving.  It's clear from the prevalence of water-loving native plants like miner's lettuce (photo below; more information here) even in areas that we don't normally see them that the soils are saturated.

Miner's Lettuce

The rain and cool weather in the first half of March delayed the spread of budbreak -- which started 10 days earlier than 2015, which had been our earliest-ever year -- by a welcome couple of weeks, so we're now more or less on par with the last two years.  But things are going to be moving fast from here forward, and we're likely past the point where we could safely weather a frost even in our low-lying and late-sprouting areas.

The cover crops are still deep, green, and growing enthusiastically. With the vines (like Grenache, below) coming out of dormancy, we'll need to get them tilled under so they don't allow frosty morning air to settle next to the new sprouts:

Budding Grenache Blanc

In fact, the March rain has meant that even blocks where our animal herd spent time in January -- like the Roussanne below, with vineyard dog for scale -- have regrown so much that they'll provide a lot of additional organic matter for the soil when they're tilled under in the next few months:

Sadie in the cover crop

The alternating sun and rain has made for what is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket that contrasts dramatically with the still-dormant Mourvedre vines:

Mourvedre in Mustard

And the California poppies are starting to come out. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles in the next couple of months is in for some spectacular scenery:

Poppies

So, big picture, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things.  We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, though not enough to materially improve the groundwater reserves.  The vineyard is early by historical averages, but no longer alarmingly so.  We've negotiated the first 3 weeks of what will have been an unprecedentedly long frost season successfully, though there are still 6 weeks before we feel safe.  

Given where we were three weeks ago, I'll take it, gladly.


Budbreak 2016: Our Earliest Ever

Yesterday, I got out in the vineyard to hunt for signs of budbreak. It has been an exceptionally warm, sunny February, with weather we'd more associate with April.  And as I suspected, the vineyard had noticed.  Please join me in welcoming the 2016 vintage:

Budbreak 2016 - 1

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.  If you're thinking that this seems early to be talking about budbreak, you're right.  We have never before seen budbreak in February.  Last year, I wrote about our then-earliest-ever budbreak on March 16th (though it was maybe a week more advanced than what I saw yesterday).  To give you a sense of where 2016 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:

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

Although budbreak is still limited to Viognier (our earliest budding variety) and to the warmer tops of the hills, we know it won't be long before the other grapes join in.  I expect to see Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Syrah in the next week or so, followed by Tannat, Marsanne, and Picpoul a week or two later.  We likely won't see the late-budding Counoise, Roussanne, and Mourvedre until the second half of the month, and sections toward the bottoms of our hills (where cold air settles at night) maybe not for a little while after.

While budbreak is a hopeful sign, it's also the beginning of a period of increased risk.  During winter dormancy, the vines are not susceptible to damage from below-freezing temperatures. Once they've pushed new growth, they are.  Because we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May, this means we have at least two months of white-knuckle nights to get through.  We've been fortunate in recent years, with our last damaging frost in 2011.  It seems very unlikely, given the earliness of this year's start to the growing season, that we'll continue our run of good luck.  That said, a late budbreak is no guarantee of safety, and in fact may be an indicator of increased risk, since it was likely cold weather that delayed the budbreak in the first place.  Both 2011 and 2009 (our two recent frost years) saw April budbreaks, which were followed in short order by frosts that cost us something like 40% of our crop.

Looking forward, we have something of an unusual weather pattern developing.  Later this week, our string of warm, dry weather will be ending, and conditions more typical of El Nino will be setting back in.  This morning's agricultural forecast suggests that the jet stream will direct a series of strong, wet, not too cold storms toward California starting this coming weekend.  Early predictions are that we could receive several inches of rain in the first two waves Saturday and Monday.  What's more, they're using one of my favorite California weather terms to describe the long-term forecast: that the "storm door will stay wide open" through the middle of March.

As long as we're receiving these sorts of storms fueled by the relatively warm waters of the south Pacific, we're likely to be at little risk of frost.  If it's enough to make a good dent in our groundwater deficit, that would be a double bonus of massive proportions, and make the sharing of photos like the ones below more joyful and less terrifying.  I'm all for that.

Budbreak 2016 - 2

Budbreak 2016 - 3


We celebrate a respite in what's been a warm, dry February... with rainbows

Yesterday evening, a decent storm passed through the Paso Robles area.  It hadn't been forecast to drop too much rain (we were expecting a half-inch or so) but it turned out to be better than that.  Between 6pm and midnight, we received just over 1.5" of rain, and with the wind whipping up gusts to 37mph it felt like winter for the first time in a few weeks.

Until yesterday, February has been dry and (after a cool first few days) warm.  Beginning February 7th, we saw 10 consecutive days that reached at least the 70's, three times climbing into the 80's.  Only three times in that stretch did the nighttime lows drop below 40°, and our last freezing night was February 5th.  It's still early, but it really felt like spring, and as we watched the local almond trees burst into bloom, we were dreading the arrival of an exceptionally early budbreak.  The wildflowers were starting to bloom in the vineyard.

What's more, despite the promise of our ongoing El Nino conditions, we had dropped behind even a normal year, with the Paso Robles Airport at 90% of average winter-to-date precipitation. February is typically very wet here in Paso Robles: our second-rainiest month, just after January.  At Tablas Creek, an average February provides about 5 inches of rain for us, or about 20% of our annual total.  So, to have the first half of the month provide zero precipitation is a significant missed opportunity, and was particularly disappointing after January (6.65", or 124% of normal) got us off to a good start.

This morning, when we arrived at the vineyard, we were greeted by a remarkable double rainbow.  Two views:

PanoTwitter

and

Square

Looking forward, we have a week of dry weather forecast before we're supposed to return to a wet weather pattern for the end of the month.  What we really need is a few of the big soakings that used to be the norm in winters here, where we might see 3-5 inches of rain in a storm.  It's not that we've received -- at least not before the last few weeks -- consistently fair weather. That was the problem the last two winters: a persistent ridge of high pressure that deflected storm activity well to the north.  December 2015 saw 12 days with measurable rainfall (albeit for a total of just 1.39"), while January 2016 added a whopping 20 days with some rain.  But many of these storms seemed to just miss us, with areas to the north (and even a few times, areas to the south) getting drenched, while we saw more modest totals.

Last night's storm was one of the first all winter to exceed its predicted totals.  May it not be the last.


Why the future may look a lot like the crazy 2015 vintage

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote address at today's Vintage Report Conference here in Paso Robles.

JH Keynote Speaker Vintage Report 2015

The topic was to provide an overview of the 2015 vintage, with technical discussions to follow on the vintage's impact on vine physiology, grapevine maturation, and berry/wine composition.  I thought that my keynote address might be interesting to followers of the blog, and have shared it below.  I have added a few concluding thoughts at the end. 

I am honored to have been asked to deliver this keynote address.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you that the 2015 vintage was unusual, or that most of what made it unusual presented challenges to viticulture throughout much of California. Nor am I likely to surprise any of you who experienced it with the roller-coaster of emotions that we saw out at Tablas Creek.  This roller-coaster, in order:

  • Hope from a great beginning to the rain in the early winter of 2014-2015
  • Disillusionment as an exceptionally dry late winter left us at about 50% of normal rainfall (again)
  • Relief to have avoided frost despite an early budbreak
  • Worry about cool, windy weather during May’s flowering (which resulted in widespread shatter)
  • Uncertainty after alternating significantly warmer-than-normal and cooler-than-normal months
  • Shock upon receiving multiple inches of rain in July
  • Disbelief in seeing just how light crops were (much lower than we’d projected)
  • And back to hope at the end with our late-season grapes coming in much closer to normal yields, and overall wine quality looking strong.

You’ll get details of all these pieces from the many speakers here today, but I wanted to illustrate in two ways just how unusual the year was. 

  • First, the rainfall by month that we saw last winter out at Tablas Creek. We finished at about half of normal rainfall, but it was anything but consistent.  It’s hard to have a good rainfall winter in California if it doesn’t rain in January and March:

  Winter Rainfall 2014-2015

  • Second, the ricochets between significantly warmer than average and significantly cooler than average months during the growing season. Only June was within 10% of normal heat accumulation, and some months like May, August, and October were way off the charts.

  Degree Days 2015 Growing Season

Degree Days vs Normal 2015 Growing Season

And yet, with all this uncertainty as a background, it’s looking like 2015 produced some remarkably compelling wines. 

The lessons from 2015 may well prove to be important ones moving forward.  The scientific consensus seems to be settling around the likelihood that droughts and extreme weather in our area are going to be more common in coming years thanks to global warming. The lessons we might learn from 2015, as unusual as it looks in historical context, may well need to be applied with increasing frequency in the future.

I look forward to hearing the conclusions that some of the state’s leading viticulture researchers will present today.  Thank you all for coming.

A few conclusions

It was interesting to me, in the research I did to put together this talk, the degree to which a consensus really seems to be building among the California wine community on the effects of climate change.  Droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe.  The incidence of very warm stretches will increase, but so too will the threats from springtime frosts, as warmer March weather encourages earlier budbreak.  The climate of the California's Central Coast will increasingly resemble, in rainfall and temperature, that of Southern California.  And the increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms will make unusual summer rain events like the one we received last July more common.

A salient conclusion that Dr. Thibaut Scholasch, the organizer of the conference, made in his introduction was that the viticultural impacts we are likely to face more often given climate change (excessive drought, excessive heat) are more easily addressed by changes in viticulture and winemaking, as opposed to the opposite threats (excessive moisture, excessive cool) that put the success of a vintage largely outside of the control of a grower or winemaker.

Finally, I love that this high profile technical event, which takes place in four places around the world, has chosen Paso Robles as one of its four locations (joining Napa, Bordeaux, and Narbonne).


Assessing Winter 2015, So Far: Cold and Often (but not Very) Wet

This far, despite several storms that passed near or over us, and despite the historic El Niño conditions that persist in the Pacific Ocean, we haven't gotten much rain yet.  Most of the storms have seemed to peter out just north of us, or pass just to the west, or south.  Yesterday's storm dropped multiple inches of rain in Cambria, Morro Bay, and even San Luis Obispo, while we got just a trace.  I'm not sure I ever remember that happening.  Today, on the solstice, thick clouds sat over the Santa Lucia range to our west, while we spent much of the shortest day of the year in unexpected sun:

20151222_131156_resized

And yet, it has felt very much like winter the last month, with no warm stretches, frosts most nights, and several days that have seen at least some measurable precipitation.  So, how do the early days of this winter stack up against recent years?  It's... well... complicated.  Let's see what we can say.

It's been cold.
So, when I say cold, I mean both cold nights and cold daytime highs.  In the last month, we've had 13 nights drop below freezing.  Our average over that period (November 23rd-December 22nd) since 2009 is 8.6 freezing nights.  Last year we didn't have any in that stretch.  As for daytime highs, we've topped 70 only 3 times in the last month, and only barely, while 17 days have failed to make it out of the 50s. That 17 figure is the most going back to when the detailed weather database starts in 2009.

It's rained fairly often, but not much.
Typically, when it's cold here in Paso Robles, it's also clear.  The two other times we've hit double-digits in number of freezing nights in  this period (2011 and 2013) we had just 5 and 2 days with measurable rainfall, respectively.  This year, we've had 10 days recording measurable precipitation, but only accumulated 1.23 inches over the period.  By contrast, the other years we measured double-digit days of precipitation saw much greater rainfall totals.  The number of rainy days and the total precipitation November 23rd-December 22nd for the last 7 years: 

  • 2015 (10 days): 1.23 inches
  • 2014 (17 days): 7.75 inches
  • 2013 (2 days): 0.58 inches
  • 2012 (14 days): 6.87 inches
  • 2011 (5 days): 0.34 inches
  • 2010 (16 days): 9.76 inches
  • 2009 (11 days): 5.40 inches

What does this all mean?
I'm not sure it means that much.  Looking at a single month is such a small sample size that it doesn't even correlate significantly with the rest of the winter.  Last winter, and 2012 for that matter, looked like they were setting us up for great rainfall -- and are really indistinguishable in this period from the wet winters of 2009 and 2010 -- only to find the storms take other paths after the new year.  2011 and 2013 saw very dry end-of-years, but we got decent rainfall late in the winter season.  So, while it's tempting to draw larger conclusions, I think it's premature. We're one month into the 5-month stretch -- starting mid-November and ending mid-April -- where there's a good chance of significant rain. We've largely missed out on the first of those 5 months.

So what's the silver lining?
The fact that we've had several nicely distributed days of light rain has meant that the cover crop has gotten a great chance to start growing, and should be in good shape to hold the soil in place when the rains do come.  A photo from this morning shows the vineyard's new soft green coat:

20151222_130717_resized

Other silver linings are more big-picture.  The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is above-average for the first time in years.  The vineyard is conserving the water that it has received; the frosty nights have pushed the vineyard into full dormancy, and the cool, cloudy days have meant that very little moisture is being lost to evaporation.  And most other wine regions in the state have gotten better rainfall than we have, particularly regions to our north:

Rainfall CA December

But the most important silver lining is that El Niño is still on track to produce a very wet next three months.

Anticipating El Niño
This year's El Niño, caused by elevated surface water temperatures in the South Pacific Ocean, is still on track to be one of the strongest ever.  And past El Niños haven't produced much of their effect before Christmas, but have produced Januaries, Februaries, and Marches of roughly double normal rainfall.  It's not a guarantee, but at least the right conditions are in place.  And it does feel different than the past couple of winters, when we went long stretches with clear, warm weather, produced by what meteorologists dubbed the "ridiculously resilient ridge": a persistent high pressure area that deflected the Pacific storm track well to the north of California for months at a time. The more storms that come our way, the better our chances of getting a big one.

And that would be the best possible Christmas present.


Photos from the Gathering Storm

Yesterday, we had our second (small) storm of the winter come through Paso Robles.  Late Sunday night, the main frontal boundary pushed through the area, dropping about 4/10" of rain on us and similar amounts across most of the Paso Robles region.  Yesterday, the storm's low pressure center moved over us, producing another 2/10" of rain in a few discrete cloudbursts.

I went outside around mid-day to get a photo of the approaching storm, hoping for a shot (or even a video) of the first drops of rain.  Instead, when I got into the middle of the vineyard, a small hole opened in the clouds overhead, and I ended up with about twenty minutes of beautifully illuminated sunlit vineyard foreground, and impressive swirling dark grey clouds in the background.  As the skies opened up:

From truck looking west

A few more favorite photos are below, starting with the one I ended up posting to our Facebook page, looking up our main hill across our Grenache and Mourvedre blocks.  As always, click on the images to see them larger, and visit us on Instagram for more visual treats:

November Storm Gathering over Tablas Creek

From the top of that hill, the contrast between the vines and the skies was even more dramatic, and looked to me like a movie set:

Movie set vines

The sky was a show in itself:

The sky

But the light was equally friendly to the autumn colors.  I like the feel of this photo, looking down through our oldest Grenache block down over the center of the vineyard:

Autumn Long View 2015

Back at the winery, autumn was definitely in the air, with puddles on the crushpad, leaves swirling, and a chill that promises frost the next few nights:

Winery and puddles

This is a firmly wintery pattern we're in at the moment.  We're getting modest storms every week or so (each of the first two have produced about a half-inch, with another similar one forecast for a week from now) and cool days and cold nights in-between.  I've had frost on my car most mornings the past week, though the vineyard has until now escaped with temperatures in the mid-30's.  That's likely to end over the next few nights, which is a good thing.

There are the first inklings of a real winter storm, that might -- hopefully! -- produce multiple inches of rain, forecast for the end of next week (around November 19th).  If so, great.  But whether the serious rain starts sooner or later, these mini-storms are perfect ways to begin our winter, because they'll allow our cover crop seeds to germinate and hold the soil in place once the rain really gets going.  We can't wait.


Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
-25.6%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
-29.0%
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.


We Help the Vineyard Don Its Autumn Coat

This is the time of year when things start to slow down enough that you take new stock of what's around you.  Harvest is mostly done (look for more on this later in the week).  The days are getting quite short, and the nights notably cooler.  The quality of the light changes with the lower sun angles, with richer yellows to the sunlight.  And the vineyard is responding, with the vine leaves losing chlorophyll and the yellows, oranges, and reds emerging for their brief autumn before everything fades to brown with the first frost.

A Mourvedre vine will give you an idea.  We're done with our harvesting here, although as you see there is the occasional second-crop cluster remaining.  These will provide treats for our animal herd as we get them back out in the vineyard.

Mourvedre colors_med

Though the bright green of summer fades in all cases, not every grape's foliage colors up so dramatically, as you can see from Roussanne, below, which turns more yellow than red.  Roussanne is the only grape for which we have any significant crop remaining on the vines:

Roussanne banner_mid

Even as we finish up this year's harvest, we're getting the vineyard ready for winter. This means seeding the cover crop that will hold the soil in place during our (hopefully) torrential el nino rains this winter, and putting out the compost that we've been making all year.  The compost spreader, poised and ready:

Compost Spreader_mid

It hasn't come close to freezing yet -- our lowest nighttime low this fall has been 42° -- but we typically get our first frost night sometime between late October and mid-November.  These frosts are a good thing for the vines, in that they force them into dormancy. Right now, relieved of their crop and with warm sun still available, many of our vines (like the Tannat vine below) have started growing new leaf growth at the end of this year's canes:

Tannat regrowth_med

In this climate, a grapevine's late-season growth serves no purpose, as the energy and carbohydrates needed to fuel the new growth will be lost at first frost and would be better stored in the root system for next spring.  So, bring on our chilly nights.

As for the weather outlook, we've had some cool, unsettled weather over the last few days, including 0.08" of rain on Thursday (we posted a video of one of these cloudbursts on our Facebook page) and daytime highs in the mid-70s.  It's supposed to warm up a bit over the next week, before a series of fronts start to weaken California's high pressure and are predicted to eventually open California to the westerly rain-bringing winds.  If all goes as planned, we'll welcome our first winter storms around Halloween.

I'll leave you with one final photo, which feels to me even more fall-like than the others.  I took it near our straw-bale barn, in the bowl at the center of our vineyard.  We have trained the Mourvedre vines there up high to allow cold air (that in the spring can bring damaging frosts) to more easily drain underneath them.  One second-crop cluster remained, among mostly-brown leaves and a nascent cover crop.  Soon enough, the whole vineyard will look like this:

Fall Mourvedre Cluster_med