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


State of the Vineyard, Mid-Summer Edition

This has been an unusual summer.  We had the warmest late-winter/early-spring anyone can remember. This was followed by the coolest May in 20 years. Then June was hot.  July, so far, has been cool, and we've even had (very unusual for summer in Paso Robles) a couple of showery days.

Overall, the year looks about average in terms of heat accumulation.  At 1276 degree days to date, we're about 10% behind where we've been the last three warm years (2012-2014 average on July 14th: 1483) but 15% ahead of the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages (average on July 14th: 1112).  Through it all, the vineyard continues to look remarkably healthy.  

To get a sense of how healthy, I'll start with this panoramic photo, taken this week, overlooking olur main Grenache block.  It's worth expanding it; click on it (or any photo) to see it bigger:

Panorama over Grenache

All this variation in the weather, particularly the warm April and the cold May, suggests that we'll see a harvest that will begin early and end late.  The grapes that had sprouted by early April (like Viognier, Grenache and Grenache Blanc) were spurred on by the warmth and sun, and pushed canes already a foot long or more by the time it cooled off in May.  The later-sprouting grapes (like Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne) were barely out when it got cold, and didn't really start growing until things warmed up again in June.  This led to a period in mid-June where the early varieties had grapes that were already pea-sized while many of the late varieties were still flowering.

Things have evened out in the last few weeks, but you can still see remnants of the uneven beginning in the different cluster and berry sizes.  First, Syrah, from near the top of the hill.  The berries look nearly full-sized, but we haven't seen any veraison yet:

Syrah clusters

Grenache, too, has grown a lot, though we do expect some added mass before they start to turn red:

Grenache clusters

Mourvedre is still farther away from being ready, with the grapes still as much oval as round, and small, hard and light green:

Mourvedre clusters

This same week last year, I was already talking about veraison in Syrah and Mourvedre.  2014's veraison was about 2 weeks earlier than normal, and this carried through to a mid-August beginning to harvest. The fact that we're still not seeing veraison suggests that we're likely looking at a later start to harvest than the last few years, and I'm also expecting a significantly later finish.  Could we start in late August and finish in early November?  It seems likely, at this point, though a stretch of hot (or cold) weather could move that around.

Crop levels seem down a bit compared to the past couple of years.  Given that we're now four years into our drought, that's hardly surprising.  But it doesn't look like it will be dramatically reduced, and the vineyard looks healthier than it has in mid-July in years.  Roussanne often is showing signs of stress by now, with leaves starting to yellow.  Not this year.  I'll leave you with one final shot of our Roussanne, sheltering under a vibrantly green canopy and beginning its long, slow trek toward what will likely be a mid-October harvest:

Through Roussanne row


Photos of the Day (Week? Summer?): Celestial Meetings

The sky put on a show last night.  Not only was there a beautiful full moon, but Venus and Jupiter came together in a conjunction that takes place just once per year.  And the timing worked: the moon was rising in the east at the same time that the planets were setting in the west, keeping the moon's brilliance from obscuring the planetary show.

I got good photos of each (click on the pictures for larger versions).  First the planets, already clearly visible in the evening sky:

Planets - July 2015

And then the full moon, even brighter, though the background sky was still blue:

Full moon - Jul 2015

Yesterday afternoon, we were thinking that seeing the sky show was going to be a long shot.  We've been in an unusual summer weather pattern with a high pressure system located to the east of us drawing waves of subtropical moisture over California.  We have had clouds (a rarity for mid-summer) in the sky most of the week, gathering density enough twice (this past Saturday and yesterday) to provide a few sprinkles. The rain hasn't been enough to register at our weather station, or to affect the growing season, but those overcast days have provided a nice respite from what has been a hot stretch for us, with high temperatures mostly in the upper 90's and lower 100's, and unusually elevated humidity.

Still, when you know that there is going to be a performance in the night sky, you don't want cloud cover.  When it broke apart around sunset, it gave the feel of a curtain opening at a play.  

And the performance turned out to be memorable.


Shatter explained: A perfect flower, but not a perfect bloom

By Levi Glenn

Every year there is a one- to two-week period when the vineyard smells wonderful. That's when you know bloom has arrived. It's not the unbelievably effusive smell of an orange grove in full blossom. Or the sweetly intoxicating blue bush lupine, a beautiful native wildflower we see each spring. The scent of a vineyard in full bloom is a bit more understated, elusive even. It's got a sweet floral note underscored by a deeper earthy character. The smell is fleeting, as is bloom. At least in most years.

Mourvedre in full bloom
A Mourvedre cluster in full bloom

Simply put, bloom is the window of time in which each individual flower pollinates itself. Grapevines have what is referred to as a perfect flower. Many crops require both male and female plants to produce fruit. A male flower's pollen is moved by wind (and often aided by honeybees) to help find its way to a female flower. Perfect flowers -- including grapes -- can self-pollinate. That is, unless something goes wrong. 

In our area, weather during bloom is typically optimal for even fruit set: warm, dry, not too much wind. 2015 has been a bit different. After a historically warm first four months and a correspondingly early emergence from dormancy, May was unseasonably cool. We had quite a bit of wind, and the fog produced by the onshore flow seemed relentless. There were even a couple light rain events. Wind can blow the pollen away, and rain or fog can make the flower cap stick. Both result in an unfertilized flower. With optimal conditions, bloom can be as fast as a week. This year, we have seen some blocks take close to a month to complete flowering. When a flower doesn't turn into a berry for whatever reason, we call that shatter (or coulure in french). When this is widespread over a vineyard, crop loss can be severe. The two examples below are the two ends of the spectrum.

 Full Grenache Cluster
A fully-fertilized Grenache cluster

Shattered Grenache ClusterA Grenache cluster with lots of shatter

Aborted BerriesUnfertilized Grenache berries

In addition to the Grenache -- which is known as a shatter-prone variety -- we have seen some shatter in Syrah.  But it's not even across the entire vineyard.  Grenache from warmer blocks that flowered first, during warm weather in late April, set quite well. Grenache from cooler, lower-lying parts of the vineyard that didn't get around to flowering until May show more shatter.  The Mourvedre and Roussanne that are finishing in our warm weather now don't show any signs of shatter. 

The conditions during bloom can dictate crop levels not only for this year, but also for next year. The 2016 inflorescence (cluster) is being formed right now whithin the bud located inside this years shoot. Growing conditions this year can affect how many clusters (typically one to three) will be inside next year's buds, and what size they will be. As an example, weather during the 2014 bloom period was ideal, so we saw some shoots with three clusters on them this year.

Mild-to-moderate shatter in a variety like Grenache isn't always a bad thing. This variety tends to produce large, often dense clusters. The berries that are on the interior of the cluster aren't exposed to sunlight and can therefore stay pale in color, producing correspondingly lighter wines. With some shatter, the more open clusters receive more even light exposure, creating darker and more concentrated wines.  Looser clusters also reduce clusters' susceptibility to mildew, to which Grenache can be prone.

And, of course, bloom is just the beginning.  Crop level and quality are affected by the full season's weather conditions, and we adjust what we do in the vineyard depending on what we see.  Blocks with shatter, or fewer buds per shoot, will need less, or even no, thinning to produce top quality fruit.  The more productive blocks give us more options, but are also more work.

Overall, our unusually cool May appears to have reduced the amount of crop in some varieties, but crop levels on average don't look that different from 2013 or 2014. Given that our last two years produced perhaps the highest-quality back-to-back vintages in our history, knowing that crop levels this year are comparable is a good early indicator of quality.  Stay tuned.


Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on JancisRobinson.com.  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):

Priorat

By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:

Vineyards_near_Gevrey-Chambertin_(7309858246)

The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

Footnotes
1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site climate-data.org) shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:

Climate-graph-cdp

Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.


Photo Essay: Spring in the Vineyard

This spring continues to be benign. After our scare in early April, we've had three weeks of beautiful weather, with lows between 36° and 45°, and highs between 57° and 82°.  The average low has been 39° and the average high 70°: really perfect spring weather.  We've accumulated 207 growing degree days so far, just above our 20-year average of 182, but well below the high of 274, set in 2013.

We haven't gotten much in the way of additional rain.  Despite some promising forecasts for much of last week, we received measurable precipitation only once, on Saturday, and then only 0.02".  But that's OK; rain at this time of year, unless it's significant enough to penetrate deep into the soil, is as much a nuisance as it is a benefit, since it encourages the regrowth of the cover crop that we're spending much of our time trying to bring under control.

The net result has been a beautifully even push from the grapevines of all different varieties.  I was here late in the day yesterday, and got out to take some photos in the late-afternoon light.  These are some of my favorites.  First, a photo of solar power, direct and indirect: a dry-farmed Mourvedre vine, with the solar panels we use to power the winery in the background:

Head-trained mourvedre and solar panels

Not all our varieties are out equally; Grenache (below, top), which is both first to sprout and one of the grapes that makes the most canopy is out quite a bit further than Mourvedre (below, bottom):

New Growth - Grenache

New Growth - Mourvedre

We have flower clusters, and though I wasn't able to find any actual flowering yet, it's surely going to be underway soon.  You can see a similar difference in the size and advancement of the clusters between Grenache (below, top) and Mourvedre (below, bottom). The background for the Mourvedre cluster is one of the solar panels, if you're wondering why it's gray:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre cluster

The cover crop is indeed growing again, thanks to the inch of rain we received on April 7th.  This will mean a second pass through much of the vineyard, at least the parts that we'd mowed rather than disked or spaded:

Grenache hill with regrowing cover crop

Still, this is one of my favorite times of year.  We're largely past the risk of serious frost, particularly since our 10-day forecast doesn't show anything threatening.  It's not hot yet.  The still-green grasses on the hillsides give an overall air of softness that we won't have in a month, and that greenish brown is set against the yellow-green of the newly-leafed out grapevines and oak trees.  Knowing that we're off to an ideal start to the growing season makes it all the sweeter.  

I'll leave you with one last of my favorite photos, from our Scruffy Hill block, which gives you a sense of the landscape: vineyard in front, oak-studded hillsides in the background rising in increasingly rugged folds toward the south and west.  Cheers to spring, and to the incipient 2015 vintage.

Scruffy Hill