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


Photo of the Day: Autumn Mourvedre

This is the stretch where I'm on the road the most, when we're getting ready to release our flagship Esprit wines, and when the market is choosing the wines for its many holiday programs.  I try not to be gone for full weeks given how much is going on here too, but it's often the case that I'm here for a few days and gone for the rest of the work week.  When I arrived back into the office today, the changes from early last week were noteworthy.  Most noticeably, the fall colors had come out in the Mourvedre:

Mourvedre with autumn colors Sept 2015

I probably shouldn't be surprised that things are moving fast now.  We've had a warm September, with three distinct heat spikes: September 8th-12th, September 19th-21st, and September 24th-26th.  And we've had fewer cold nights than normal; over the last 10 nights, only one has dropped into the 40's.

And suddenly, it seems like everything is ripe.

We spent most of today testing each remaining vineyard block, and putting together a plan of action. Happily, it looks like it's not supposed to be up in the 90's much going forward, and we'll get cool nights more often than not.  But it doesn't look like harvest will go much longer than last year's, which ended on October 7th.

Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the new colors of the vineyard.  If you're coming out in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.


Mid-September Harvest Update: Why harvest started earlier than we predicted... and why our frighteningly low early yields may soon improve

Harvest, pushed by the last week of hot weather, has started to move fast.  We've brought in nearly 80% of the grapes for our Patelin de Tablas wines, and nearly finished our early white grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) here off the estate.  Tuesday, we picked our first estate reds, with two lots of Syrah. The harvest board is growing:

Harvest board 9.11.15

You'll notice that most of the entries on the board are in purple chalk, indicating that they're from purchased fruit. This reflects that most of the vineyards that we buy from for the Patelin wines are ahead of our own estate.  It's also a reflection that the grapes on which we base our Patelin wines (Grenache/Viognier for the white, and Syrah/Grenache for the red) ripen at the earlier end of the spectrum, while our two most important grapes for our estate wines (Roussanne and Mourvedre) ripen late.

Why harvest began earlier than we'd predicted
In my veraison post and harvest preview,  I predicted an early September start to harvest based on our date of first veraison and the range of times in recent years between veraison and harvest.  (The exact range I'd predicted was between August 28th and September 7th.)  Instead, we began picking Viognier off our estate on August 26th. Why? First, August was the warmest on record in San Luis Obispo County. Second, our VIognier harvest was exceptionally light.  Off of 5.8 producing acres, we harvested just 5.5 tons, less than half of last year's pig-reduced crop.  The tiny yields weren't unexpected, but they are unprecedented, and it's unsurprising that the combination of low yields and hot weather resulted in our shortest-ever time between veraison and harvest.

Our only other estate grape to come in in August was Vermentino, which had its own yield issues.  We've only picked one block (our cross-hairs, or CH block) but that block, which produced nearly 10 tons last year, yielded just 3.71 tons this year.  If not for these two low-yield-accelerated blocks, my prediction for an early-September start to harvest would look better.

Ongoing concerns on yields
We've known since our first Patelin lots of Viognier arrived that the grape was going to be scant, due to the third year of drought and cool, wet weather when it was flowering. Vermentino, though, was a bit of a surprise, and when it came in so light, it started a mild panic in the cellar.  We do have two other (smaller) blocks of Vermentino still to be picked, but it's now an open question as to whether or not we'll have enough even to supply a wine club shipment for 2015.

And yet, some things look fine
There are a few elements that are allowing us a glimmer of hope despite the painfully low yields on the grapes we've mostly picked.  

First is that the cold, unsettled May that we believe impacted the yields of the early-flowering grapes does not appear to have had the same impact on the later grapes like Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise.  These June-flowering grapes look, from our vineyard surveys and our cluster counts, to be more or less in line with last year's yields.

Second is that the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks look fine.  I was out on Scruffy Hill yesterday, which is all head-trained and dry-farmed, and the yields looked quite healthy, both in Grenache (below, left) and Mourvedre (below, right):

Scruffy Grenache

Scruffy Mourvedre

 

Third, quality looks super. It's easier to tell at this stage on the reds, where you can look at thickness of skins and depth of color, and the first estate reds we've gotten have been dark, chewy, and flavorful. The initial bins of Syrah off the estate, below, show it well:

Syrah in bin

Fourth, there are some Patelin vineyards whose yields have been fine, with excellent quality.  Take, for example, the Estrella Syrah that came in on 8/21 and 8/22.  We'd been hoping for 25 tons, to form the chunky, meaty core of the Patelin red. The vineyard was productive enough that they were able to get us 31 tons.  This has helped us mitigate the fact that many other vineyards are seeing lower (and often dramatically lower) yields.  This Syrah, in the press, looks and smells great:

Syrah in press

Looking forward
The next few weeks will give us a much clearer sense of what 2015 will look like on our own vineyard. We're picking Grenache today, and it looks like we'll have a steady stream of estate lots (Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, our first Roussanne, and maybe even a little Mourvedre) coming in shortly. Stay tuned.


Veraison 2015 Suggests an Early September Start to Harvest

Although we've been distracted by the more unusual occurrence of last weekend's summer rainstorm, this week also has provided the annual milestone of veraison.  Veraison marks the point where the grapes stop accumulating mass and start accumulating sugar (and, more noticeably, change color from green to red). It is one of the landmarks of the season, not least because it marks a point roughly six-weeks before the onset of harvest. As usual, we saw veraison first in Syrah, closely followed by Grenache and Mourvedre.  A few of the more colored Syrah clusters are below (though it's worth noting that even in these, there are still as many green berries as red, and that most of the clusters in the vineyard are still totally green):

Veraison 2015 syrah

While we expect to start our red harvest with Syrah sometime in early September, Mourvedre is an outlier, with relatively early veraison but an unusually long time between veraison and harvest.  Although we're starting to see color in many of our Mourvedre blocks, we don't expect it to come in before October:

Veraison 2015 mourvedre 2

I had to go to the very top of our Grenache blocks to find any color, and even there it's still just beginning.  We expect this to start coming in sometime in mid- to late-September:

Veraison 2015 grenache

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 sprouts and begins to grow (determined largely by the date of the last winter freeze) and on how fast it can photosynthesize (determined by the amount of heat and sun after budbreak).  Some years (last year, for example, which was warm and frost-free) it was easy to know that we'd see an early veraison; the question was just how early.  When you have a year, like this year, that is giving contrasting conditions (a budbreak two weeks earlier than normal, followed by a summer that has alternated hot and cold and is currently 5% behind normal in heat accumulation) it's less obvious, and we watch for veraison's signs more eagerly.  You can see from the chart below, from the Western Weather Group's Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance forecast, where 2015 sits in degree days compared to other recent vintages:

Growing Degree Days 2015 edited

The duration between veraison and harvest is not totally constant, and is determined by the weather that we get in the interim.  The chart below shows the two dates for our last eight harvests, with the year linked to my blog post about veraison that year:

YearFirst Veraison NotedHarvest 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 20 ? ?

July 20th forms the median of the data points above, and suggests a beginning of harvest also sometime near normal.  Based on the range of days that it's taken between first veraison and harvest (between 39 and 49 days) that suggests that harvest will begin sometime between August 28th and September 7th.  Given that our crop levels are relatively light this year, I'm betting that it will be toward the early end of that range.

It is noteworthy, I think, that we've recovered from a two-weeks-earlier-than-normal budbreak to a normal veraison.  That we've already achieved two extra weeks on the vine compared to an average year is a good thing, given that the longer that the grapes can stay in contact with the vines, the more opportunity they have to pull character and minerality out of the soil.

Now, we start waiting, but at least we know roughly how much time is on the timer.


Did 2.6" of rain in July really just happen?

Yesterday, we hosted a seminar on dry-farming.  In the rain.  In Paso Robles.  In July.

Levi lecturing

And it wasn't just a little rain, either.  As we were talking about how we've been working to plant increasing acres of vines without any irrigation infrastructure, and how we've been weaning even our established vines off of needing regular water, we were in the process of accumulating more rain -- seven times more rain -- than Paso Robles had received in any July day in its history.  In fact, we received four times more rain yesterday than Paso Robles has ever received in an entire month of July before.

Of course, July is the driest month of the year in Paso Robles, averaging less than 0.2" of rain for the month.  But residents of other parts of the country may not realize just how unusual summer rain is in the Central Coast of California.  Maybe a graph will help (from the useful site climate-data.org):

Climate-graph-paso

The unusual storm was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores, which instead of remaining offshore or moving inland toward Phoenix (both more common paths for Pacific ex-hurricanes) wandered slowly and more or less directly north up California's coast, bringing unusually hot, moisture-laden air to parts of the state where humidity is almost totally foreign.  This moist, unstable air spurred a series of thunderstorms (themselves rare in this area) whose path took them directly over Paso Robles.  The town recorded 3.55", the highest total in the county and more than a quarter of the average annual rainfall the city can expect to receive.  It's also more than the town averages in any month during the year; for those of you who like me need a translation from the metric, 3.55" is more or less 90mm... about 10% more than Paso Robles receives on average in January, its wettest month.  We saw a little less rain out here than they did in town, but at 2.6" we still received more than we did all but two months (December and February) this past winter.

Given how much rain we received, and how fast it came down, you might wonder how the vineyard fared. It came through with flying colors. We rarely see much erosion here, due to the porosity of the clay-limestone bedrock, and we didn't see any in the vineyard. The little we saw was confined to a few vineyard tracks, where the occasional tractor traffic compresses the soils enough that water runs down rather than soaking in. From this afternoon:

Minor erosion

We don't anticipate any serious negative consequences from the rain. After a last round of showers and thunderstorms that are forecast to blow through this evening, it's supposed to dry out. It looks like we'll have a few sunny, breezy, relatively cool, low humidity days, and then it will warm up to normal for the season (highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with virtually no humidity).  This should serve to dry out the surface layer of the soil, and prevent too many weed seeds from germinating.  Plus, both the low humidity and the warm days will serve to prevent mildew from becoming a problem.

On the positive side, this is a time of year when the vines are nearly all under some stress.  A dose of rain now helps alleviate this stress, and gives the vines the energy to make their final push toward ripeness.  And the amount of rain that we received was enough to get through the topsoil and replenish the moisture in at least the upper layers of the calcareous bedrock, which will provide a reservoir for the vines over the next couple of months.  You can see how rich and soft the soils look after the rain, and also how void of erosion channels they are even near the bottom of a steep hillside:

Brown dirt

If the rain had come a month later, with some grapes nearly ripe, we would worry that the water might dilute the flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split.  But now, with veraison barely started, that's not a risk.

It's worth remembering that most other wine regions, including the Rhone, see summer rain.  The same chart as above, for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, shows that while rain is a bit less common in the summer than in other seasons, it's hardly rare:

Avg rainfall CdP

So, we'll enjoy the unusual moisture in the air, and feel thankful that we got it now and not during harvest.  If this is a precursor to what is sounding likely to be a strong el nino winter, so much the better.  I'll leave you with one final photo, taken in the middle of yesterday's rain, and looking more like an impressionist painting than a summer Paso Robles landscape:

Mist and rain