Harvest 2016 Recap: Solid Yields, High Quality and a Furious End to our Earliest-Ever Vintage

And boom, after a flurry of activity last week, we're done with harvest.  Last to arrive, on Saturday, was a final pick of Grenache, but the final week saw 72.8 tons from a whopping six different grapes: Tannat, Counoise, Mourvedre, Roussanne,  and our small bock of Cabernet, in addition to the Grenache. And not just one pick of each.  We saw six different Mourvedre picks, five Grenache picks, and two picks each for Counoise and Roussanne.  This is not usually how things sequence out; in a normal year, we'd expect the last week to be dedicated to Mourvedre and Roussanne, while the other grapes are done.  No wonder our hard-working cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Crew final bin

The compressed and overlapping picks were characteristic of 2016's harvest.  Because we plan to use each of our fermentation tanks and casks as many as 6 times each harvest, the shorter the total duration of the harvest, the more pressure we have on our available space.  But in the end, we managed to make it all fit, and were very happy with the quality we saw. But you can see from the below chart that it didn't follow a normal bell curve distribution, with a slow beginning and end.  Instead, after a modest start, we stayed busy, with at least 70 tons coming in all of the last five weeks. In fact, our last two weeks were our two busiest weeks in terms of tons harvested off the estate. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by week - tons

Yields were much better than 2015, and even a little above the levels we saw in 2013 and 2014.  The increases were particularly noteworthy in the early grape varieties whose yields were so low last year, with grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache and Syrah all up 70% or more (of course, all those grapes were down at least 40% last year from our 2014 levels).  But even with the later varieties, on which we weren't expecting much of an increase, we saw some, with Roussanne up 11.9% and Mourvedre up 32%.  The complete picture, with 2014 added for some context:

Grape 2014 Yields (tons) 2015 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2015
Viognier 11.4 6.3 14.2 +125.4%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 4.5  -23.7%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 30.6 +39.1%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 7.7 +54.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 19.0  +118.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 47.0  +11.9%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
Grenache 50.7 30.7 58.8  +91.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 36.8  +72.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 62.7  +32.0%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 12.3  +25.5%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 18.0 +31.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
188.6 +53.2%
Total 294.3 213.0 311.6 +46.3%

Overall yields ended up at 2.97 tons per acre, right at our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, which includes many of our favorite vintages. Those crop levels seem to bring a balance of intensity and elegance that make the blending a pleasure in the spring.

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

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. 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
2016 22.04 3.71

2016's average sugars were our lowest-ever at harvest. Nearly every grape saw declines in average sugar levels, though most were small; only Tannat and Grenache Blanc saw (slightly) higher average sugar levels than in 2015.  At the same time, we saw higher average pH levels than we have in the last decade, particularly in grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre. I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of our ongoing drought, as well as the impact of the warm weather starting mid-September.  This idea is borne out by the fact that the vineyard looks exhausted now, in mid-October, at a time when in many years it's still leafy and green.  Overall, it was a warm year, just a hair cooler than our warmest-ever year, 2014.  Every month except May was warmer than average, even with a cool stretch that lasted nearly a month between mid-August and early September.  The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 8 days, as we finished harvesting on October 8th):

Degree days - growing season final

We picked even more lots this year (114) than last, when we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  This too was necessitated by the drought; we wanted to get the fruit off the healthiest vines while they had good acids, while letting the clusters that were ripening more slowly continue to accumulate sugar, even at the price of lower acids.  

Harvest chalkboard - finished

All this happened in near-record time.  At just 51 days between its August 18th beginning and its October 8th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at nearly a week shorter than average (our 10-year average is 57 days). The beginning was our earliest-ever, about two weeks earlier than normal, and the end our third-earliest, trailing just 2013 (by one day) and the warm, frost-reduced 2001 vintage (by 5 days).  We're done nearly three weeks earlier than normal, and will face our third Harvest Wine Weekend (coming up this weekend) in the last four years with no fruit left to harvest. 

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but two things give us good hopes for its prospects.  First is the overall similarity in sequencing, weather, and yields to 2014, which we consider our best recent vintage overall.  Second is the deep colors and intense aromas of what we've been harvesting.  Skins on our red grapes appear to have been very thick. Flavors should be intense.  One of the late-ripening Mourvedre clusters illustrates:

Late Mourvedre cluster

The last project for us for harvest 2016 is to make our first Roussanne Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35°-40° Brix -- after about 3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. We laid our last Roussanne pick, from Friday, down on straw in one of our greenhouses, and will spend the next few weeks tracking its progress.

Vin de Paille greenhouse

A closeup shows the natural honey color of the Roussanne, which will only get more golden as it dries:

Vin de Paille closeup

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  There is a hopeful forecast that suggests our first rain of the season may come as early as this weekend.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the coming chance of precipitation may interfere with what, in a normal year, would still be harvest season.

Colorful owl box

Harvest 2016 at its midpoint: things heat up, literally and figuratively, in Paso Robles

On Friday, Neil came to me and said that according to their estimates, they'd reached the midpoint of harvest that day.  And looking at the numbers, that seems right to me.  We're done with Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne. We're nearly done with Syrah and Grenache Blanc. We're perhaps one-third done with Grenache, and have made a start at Roussanne. All the grapes for Patelin Blanc, most of those for Patelin red, and the majority of the Grenache for the Patelin Rose have been picked.  Off the estate, only Picpoul, Tannat, Counoise, and Mourvedre are untouched so far.  The cellar is humming, with both presses running, new fruit arriving, and barrels and tanks getting cleaned to make space for all the arrivals:

Craig on forklift through press

Our hopes that yields would be much improved over 2015 seem to be holding up.  Of the grapes that we've finished, we saw more than twice as much Vermentino and Viognier as we did last year.  Marsanne was down 25%. But with a couple of small blocks still to go, Syrah is already up 62%.  I'm not expecting the late grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne to be up much from last year (after all, they were hardly down compared to 2014) but overall, we're likely to be up around 2014's levels, which would be great.

One big project last week was getting the Grenache in off of the dry-farmed, head-trained block we call Scruffy Hill.  It was quite a scene, on a cool, crisp day that felt more like late October than mid-September.  A big fog bank was sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west, and the day topped out at 71°F, a rare treat at this time of year. A few photos, starting with Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things, fog bank clearly visible:


The fruit looked amazing, deep blue and plentiful on the widely-spaced vines:

Scruffy Hill Grenache vimne

It looked just as good back at the winery. The block produced about 25% more fruit than last year, at picture perfect numbers. Flavors were intense:

Grenache bins in front of empty bins

We had one more very cool day last Tuesday, when the sun peeked through the thick fog only at around 4pm, and the temps topped out at 65°F.  Then, a warming trend began, with each day 6-8 degrees warmer than the one before.  By this past weekend, we had two days around 100°F, and and all of a sudden, everything looks like it's ripe.  Looking at our daily highs compared to our 1981-2010 averages will help show the swing:

Aug-Sept Daily High Temps

Before this weekend, temperatures since August 10th had averaged 2.5°F below normal. The last few days have been a different story.  Still, while we're happy to have had a fairly moderate beginning to harvest, it's not a bad thing that it's heating up now.  The later grapes (like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne) have all been losing chlorophyll, and with it ripening capacity, over the last few weeks.  Having a warm stretch now, while the vines are still mostly green, will do more good than a similarly warm stretch three weeks from now. And with a grape like Mourvedre, which always struggles toward the end of the season, a little boost is just what the doctor ordered. A photo of the Mourvedre from late last week shows the autumn-tinged foliage:

Mourvedre mid-Sept

Looking forward, we've got one more hot day in the forecast tomorrow, and then it's supposed to cool off mid-week before warming back up again next weekend.  An alternating pattern like this often works out well for the cellar, as the cooler periods allow them to catch up on all the lots that have gotten ripe during the warm stretches.  Full speed ahead.

A Cool Stretch Lets Us Ease into Harvest 2016; Yields Seem Solid

The cellar is full of bins of fruit. Our white press is running all day pressing newly harvested Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Vermentino, and our red press has been working on the first loads of Syrah. Everything smells yeasty and spicy, with the tang of CO2 in the air. We are fully in the thick of harvest.  

Clairette in bins

After a very warm June, July, and beginning to August, cooler weather returned about two-thirds of the way through August, and it's been relatively cool ever since.  In fact, the first week of September has been significantly cooler than normal, with degree days down 24%.  We can complete one more month in the heat graph, and you can see that while August is usually about 20% warmer than June, this year it was cooler, though still a touch above our 20-year average:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference Sept

The cooler respite has been welcome, as there were lots of blocks that were getting close even a few weeks ago, and the cooler weather has allowed us to sequence them a little more gracefully into the cellar.  So far, we've picked about 163 tons of fruit, roughly evenly split between reds and whites.  The bulk of what we've brought in so far (about 70%) has been purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas program, both because many of the Patelin vineyards are in somewhat warmer parts of Paso than we are, and because the grapes that these wines are based on -- Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the white, and Syrah for the red -- are harvested on the early side anyway.  We're probably two-thirds done with Patelin.

We're really just beginning the estate harvest. The 50 tons we've picked so far has been mostly Viognier and Vermentino (14 tons each), Syrah (10 tons), Pinot Noir (7 tons) and Grenache Blanc (2 tons).  We've also picked most of our Marsanne, though we only got a ton in so far and are expecting yields on this grape to be down.  The other grapes offer hope for a more generous harvest, though.  In 2015, we only harvested 9 tons of Vermentino and 6 tons of Viognier, totals we've already surpassed with a little more still to come in. One Syrah block (our Syrah "C" clone) we picked just 2.63 tons last year and received 5.16 tons this year, nearly double.  Of course, we're comparing quantities to grapes that saw cripplingly low yields in 2015, so it's not like we're seeing a windfall of grapes.  But yields look a lot more like 2014 (when we ended up harvesting 298 tons off the estate, just a hair below our 10-year average) than like 2015 (where totals ended up at 215 tons only because our late-ripening grapes were down much less than our early ones).  So, while it's early, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about quantities.  If we do end up around 2014's totals, that would mean that we're about 17% done so far.

Quality seems super.  Our sugar and acid numbers are pretty close to textbook, and we're seeing deep colors and tasting vibrant flavors.  We don't see any impact from the two weeks of intermittently smoky weather caused by the nearby Chimney Fire, and feel pretty confident that the smoke wasn't thick enough or long-lasting enough to have left any residue on the grapes.

As for what's next, we're sampling virtually the entire vineyard this week, as well as all the remaining Patelin vineyards.  We're expecting most of the Grenache for us to press directly into the Patelin de Tablas Rosé before the end of the week, as well as more Syrah and Marsanne off our own estate, more Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc, and the first Grenache for our Patelin red.  The floor of the cellar looks like a painter's palette:


In the vineyard, even the latest ripening grapes have completed veraison and are looking (from the outside, at least) like they're ripe.  On the inside, however, grapes like Mourvedre (below) are still weeks, maybe even a month, away from being ready to pick.  Sugars are still in the mid- to high-teens, pH levels are still in the high 2's, seeds are still green, and flavors are not yet developed.  They may look great (and in fact, they make good eating) but we know we have to be patient.

Mourvedre on Vine Sept 2016

The pattern we've seen so far -- early budbreak, warm summer, then a cooldown as harvest approaches -- reminds us a lot of 2014.  Yields seem similar as well.  Given that 2014 is the best vintage in our recent memory, that's got to be a good thing.  Stay tuned.

An update from smoky Paso Robles

Many of you will be aware that there's a big fire burning in the Santa Lucia Mountains north of Big Sur and south-east of Carmel. The Soberanes Fire, which started last week, has grown to over 19,000 acres, and its plume of smoke is easily visible from space:

As you can see from the image above, most of the smoke is being pushed inland by the prevailing winds, but some is collecting in the Salinas River Valley, and was drawn up toward Paso Robles yesterday evening.  We ended up sleeping with our windows closed and the air conditioning on last night rather than have the house smell like old campfire.  This morning, I arrived at work to see a landscape with blurred edges and a grayish tint, instead of the normal crystal clear, deep blue sky (click on the image for a larger panoramic view):

Smoky panorama 2016

This isn't the first time we've seen smoky weather here at the vineyard, although we've been lucky to avoid any big nearby fires.  Back in 2008, two large fires put a high layer of smoke overhead, giving us the unusual perception of overcast summer days. This year's smoke isn't as thick, although it is closer to the surface.

If grapes are exposed to concentrated smoke over time, they can pick up an oily, smoky taste. This character (typically called "smoke taint") was an issue for many Mendocino and Sonoma wineries in 2008, and seems likely to be an issue for Monterey County wineries this year. That said, we don't think that the amount of smoke we're seeing now will have any impact on our harvest. It's only lightly smoky here, and the forecast is for the weather pattern to shift by the weekend to a more dramatic on-shore flow, which should draw fresh air off the Pacific Ocean, just ten miles west over the coast range.

Meanwhile, we're watching the vineyard go through veraison, variety by variety. Syrah was first. We've seen a few examples of Mourvedre around the vineyard in the past couple of days. And I got a photo of Grenache this morning, still more green than red, but on its way. Even in that photo, you can see some of the smoky haze against the horizon:

Veraison 2016 Grenache 3

Looking again at how advanced we are, I'm reassessing my prediction that we might challenge our earliest-ever harvest. What I'm seeing is more like 2013 or 2015 (roughly a week ahead of average) than it is like 2014 (roughly 2 weeks early). But there's still a long way to go, and a consistently hot August might push things up again. In any case, we know we're likely to see some fruit coming in the last week or ten days of August.

Look for more updates in coming weeks.

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:


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:




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).