Blending the 2017 reds confirms that we're looking at a vintage for the ages

Last week, after three weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 12 red wines we'll be making from the 2017 vintage.  It was a treat.  Esprit and Panoplie were rich, lush, and intense, but with good structure and no sense of heaviness.  The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah were each powerfully evocative of what we love about each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache juicy and vibrant, and Syrah smoky and spicy. Counoise was ridiculously electric, with masses of purple fruit that in most vintages it only hints at.  The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with a great expression of place, while Le Complice was both dark and bright, like Syrah with an extra application of translucency. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive.  And, equally important, thanks to the plentiful 2017 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of all our wines.  After five drought-impacted years, what a relief.

2017 red blending components

How did we get here? It was, as they say, a process.  As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the healthy crop levels that we saw in 2017, we had no choice but to separate our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday.  Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (20 lots): A very good showing for Grenache, although there was more diversity here than in some of the other grapes.  Eight of the lots received 1's from me, with three others getting provisional 1's (lots that I believe will become 1's with just a little cellar work).  Only one 3.  Pretty but powerful too, with excellent fruit and good acids that proved valuable in blending.
  • 2017 red blending notes
    The Mourvedre portion of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
    Mourvedre (18 lots): The best showing I can ever remember for Mourvedre.  I gave eleven lots a 1 grade, and felt a little guilty that I didn't give a few of the 2's higher grades.  Only one lot I even thought about giving a 3.  Meaty and rich, great texture, lots of depth. A wonderfully powerful base for our many wines that are based on this grape, and thanks to the plentiful vintage, great prospects for an amazing varietal Mourvedre.
  • Syrah (19 lots): Really good here too, though because the other varieties were so strong, it didn't stand out as much as it did, say, in 2016. Seven 1's, with seven others that I gave 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Lots of smaller lots here as we experiment with different amounts of stem inclusion, which made for some fun and diverse expressions of the grape, from dark, inky, and plush to ones more marked by herby spice.
  • Counoise (7 lots): For the first time in years, multiple Counoise lots that seemed Esprit-weight. There were still some of the lighter pretty high-toned Gamay-style lots that lovers of our varietal Counoise bottling will recognize, but a greater quantity of rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise than I can ever remember.
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, with tons of spice and nice tannic bite. It was the one grape that didn't increase its yield between 2016 and 2017, and there's not that much (2 puncheons) but it's enough to make a nice impact on the Le Complice.
  • Tannat (6 lots): Four of the six lots got 1 grades from me, and the others got 2's only because I thought they were so powerful they were a little one-dimensional. It's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, Tannat's signature tannic structure and acids, and a lovely little bit of violet floral lift.
  • Pinot Noir (4 lots): All these lots come, of course, from my parents' small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, but we were experimenting with different amounts of stems and whole cluster. The mix of the four hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the herbal elements by the roughly 50% whole clusters we used in the fermentation. A touch of oak was nice too. Should make for a delicious 2017 Full Circle Pinot.

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the lack of evident weaknesses in the Mourvedre we weren't sure whether we wanted feature more Syrah, more Grenache, or a relatively equal amount of each in Panoplie and Esprit. And for the first time in several years, Counoise was powerful enough to include in the discussion for both wines.  So, we went into blending determined to try a range of options.  As always, we tasted these options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie.  Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre.  We've only added Counoise once.  We tried three blends and split pretty equally, with the only conclusion being that including Counoise sacrificed more in power than it gained in vibrancy.  After a second round of trials, we settled on a blend with a fairly high amount of Mourvedre (69%) and a roughly equal amount of Grenache (17%) and Syrah (14%).

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Here came our first real surprise.  Given that the Mourvedre was so good, we decided to try two Mourvedre-heavy blends, one with more Syrah and the other with a roughly equal percentage of Grenache and Syrah, as well as something of a control wine: one that matched the percentages of our 2014 Esprit, with 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. To all of our surprise, we universally preferred the last blend, with the least Mourvedre and the most Grenache. After ten minutes of discussion where we tried to rationalize this determination and figure out if we could think of anything that would improve the blend, we decided to trust the process and go with what we all liked best.  Sometimes the wines surprise you in the glass, which is why we do things this way.  Looking back, I can see why this might have happened.  Knowing how good the vintage was, and how short our last two crops were, we decided to make a relatively high quantity of Esprit: 4200 cases. That's a lot of wine: roughly one-third of what we harvested. Even at 40% Mourvedre, we were committing nearly half of the Mourvedre we harvested.  As we increased that and approached 50%, we had exhausted our 1-rated lots and were having to start using some 2-rated lots.  But we could get to a full 35% Grenache with only 1-rated lots. So, increasing from 40% Mourvedre to 50% Mourvedre and decreasing from 35% Grenache to 25% Grenache meant that we were swapping out 1-rated Grenache for 2-rated Mourvedre.  And our blind tasting results (rightly) told us that was a mistake.

On Thursday morning, we tackled our two small-production wine club blends -- one in just its second vintage, and one we've been making for a decade. 

Our Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale.  Last year, when we first made this wine, we realized that the two wines benefit from some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Given the limited amount of Terret from 2017, we knew that all of it would be going in this blend and account for about 13% of the 825 cases we were trying to make.  So our trials were to find the right ratio between Syrah and Grenache, and the right percentage of the Syrah that was fermented using whole clusters.  In the end, we picked the most dramatic example with the least Grenache (20%) and quite a high percentage of whole cluster Syrah (67%). It felt like a statement about what Syrah could be with a little added translucency: like a ray of sun shining through a deeply pigmented stained glass window.

For our En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed lots, in early years we used a relatively high percentage of Tannat to give backbone to wines that were otherwise mostly Mourvedre and Grenache. In more recent years, as we got some head-trained Syrah in production, our Tannat percentage declined. Given how good the Tannat was, and how luscious the vintage was, we thought it might be an opportunity to build more Tannat into the blend. And that was the wine we chose in the blind trials: one with 11% Tannat to go along with 39% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. It's important to us that all our wines taste distinct from one another, and we felt like Tannat's dark spiciness would set this blend apart from the similarly Mourvedre-heavy Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

After this, Cesar had to drive back to San Francisco for his flight to France, and we tabled the plan for the week while we all set to work excavating what had landed on our desks while we were sitting around the blending table. The next Tuesday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  Unlike some scarce years where the Cotes falls into place pretty quickly because of a lack of blending options, this year we had to answer some fundamental questions about what we wanted the Cotes to show.  More Grenache, or more power?  How much Counoise-driven vibrancy, or is that really lively Counoise more valuable as a varietal?  And how much Syrah is just enough?  Typically, Grenache without enough Syrah comes across with a candied edge. You keep adding Syrah until it cuts that edge, but add too much and it takes over and the wine loses the freshness and purity Grenache brings. In this vintage, we tried a couple of blends with around 50% Grenache and varied the Syrah and Counoise percentages, then one with less Grenache and more Syrah, and one with more Grenache and not much of the others.  This was the longest debate we had, and in the end picked something in the middle, with 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. It's delicious, with just enough depth and structure to balance Grenache's graceful fruit.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Terret Noir, but 450 cases of Syrah, 525 cases of Grenache, 550 cases of Counoise, 1100 cases (!) of Tannat, and a glorious 975 cases of the year's best grape, Mourvedre.  What a pleasure to be able to show off varietal bottlings of all four of our main red grapes from such a terrific vintage (and for the first time since 2010). What's more, I'm convinced, after having tasted through everything this week, that it will be our best varietal Mourvedre (and best Counoise, and best Tannat) we've ever bottled.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2017.  2005, which was also a plentiful vintage following an extended drought, and which made robust and appealing wines, seems to maybe be the best, but the vines were so much younger then, and the tannins more aggressive. 2014 had some similarities, but I think 2017 was across the board more expressive, and the Mourvedre was much better.  Just a great year overall, and so nice that it's plentiful too. 

Second, while it will be impossible to tease apart what contributed the vintage's noteworthy lushness and expressiveness, it's fascinating to speculate the role that our move to apply Biodynamic farming played.  Sure, the 43 inches of rain made a huge difference.  And we've been farming increasingly biodynamically for years.  But just as we noted in 2010 and 2011 the quality of the lots from the 20-acre swath we'd started farming Biodynamically in 2010, I think there's good reason to believe that at least a part of the quality of 2017 comes from the fact that we had finally extended those practices across the entire vineyard, not least that the early and plentiful rain allowed our flock to graze every vineyard block twice.  Will we see the same impact in a drier year like 2018?  Time will tell.

Third, it was great to have Cesar Perrin here for the blending.  In recent years, we've mostly seen Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin during our spring blending sessions.  But Cesar, who spent a couple of harvests here during the string of internships that he took at great wineries around the world, has really come into his own.  He is the Perrin family personified, with a reverence for tradition tempered by a love of experimentation.  For me, one of the great advantages that we've always had with the Perrins' involvement is that they come with an outside perspective but also with generations of experience with these grapes.  As they move from 4th to 5th generation, it's clearer than ever that Beaucastel is in good hands, and with it Tablas Creek.

2017 blending group shot

Finally, this was the first red blending week without my dad in the room. I spent a lot of the week thinking about him, trying to think about what he would have thought about the wines in front of him as well as what I was experiencing. Every blending session, there was at least one moment where he approached a question from a different perspective than the rest of us, and even when we were convinced that our solution was right, the change in perspective took us in a direction that was worth exploring. It's a new world for us, doing this without him.  But at least I'm convinced with this 2017 vintage -- which he did taste when he came into the winery in February -- we'll do his memory proud.


Petit Manseng: A Royal French Heritage and a New Life in the New World

Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley.  But there are exceptions.  Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek.  So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone.  In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France.  One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.

Petit Manseng LithographPetit Manseng in the Old World
Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.  This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous.  This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.

After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1

SudOuest_FranceA map of the vineyards of South-West France, from Les Vins de Sud-Ouest's press kit

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia.  That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.

Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek
In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit.  He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year.  We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.

Jurancon vineyardOne of the Jurancon vineyards my parents visited in 2003

We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.

Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar
Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant.  As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009.  We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3.   We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.

The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon.  To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%.  Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced.  If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.

2016 Petit MansengAromas and Flavors
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs.  Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age.  For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me.  Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering.  A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.

We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself.  We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room.  If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012

Life as a Harvest Cellar Intern: To Shower or Not to Shower?

[Editor's note: With this post, we are happy to welcome Linnea Frazier to the Tablas Creek blog.  Linnea was one of our cellar interns for this years harvest, fresh from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. This was her first cellar experience. This won't be the last you hear from her, as we are also happy to announce that she will be staying on with us working as our Marketing Assistant, as well as in the Tasting Room.]

By Linnea Frazier

I glanced at the clock. It was 8:13 pm and I had just trudged through the door after yet another twelve-hour cellar work day. After grappling with my juice-stained, water-logged boots and eventually winning the battle, I flopped onto the bed and contemplated my grape induced state of affairs.

To shower or not to shower? Eh, that’s what the glory of dry shampoo was invented for. To eat something besides oatmeal for dinner and make a decent meal fit for a person? Hmm, if I put enough chia seeds in it that means I’m healthy right? To attempt to stay up past 9:30 for once and get a drink with the friends who were threatening to file a missing persons report on me? Hard pass, because that would probably entail staying awake long enough to understand basic human social cues (plus the whole shower thing). Then I should probably FaceTime my Mom and placate her that I haven’t fallen into a fermenting tank yet. Perhaps not, because she would demand to check the state of my Harvest Hands.[i]

That glorious night ended as most every night of Harvest did, with my feet in fuzzy socks and a glass of my one true love, Syrah, in hand. There I rested, falling asleep by nine like the 23-year-old harvest Grandma that I was more than happily content being.

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Looking back at this year’s harvest I can’t help but chuckle at my preconceived notions going into it, and how much that changed into the new reality I have emerging from it. To describe working harvest at a winery in a mere blog is no easy task. Words almost seem to fail when I think about the evolution of what those unoffending, little grape clusters do to make their way to be imbibed and dissected at our dinner party tables, and what we need to do as winemakers to ensure they don’t stray that path. Perhaps it’s the influence of our heavily moustached shepherd Nathan, but there’s a sheep-dogging metaphor in there somewhere.

For what happens in a winery's cellar is worlds apart from the warmth and comfort of its tasting room. The environment of a cellar is raw, almost carnal in nature, with the cellar crew itself verging on animalistic at times amongst the frenzy of a Harvest. It is cold, damp, and amongst the constant heavy whir of machinery you can readily lose sense of time and place. The fervid smell of fermentation clings to everything, including you. It is this living, breathing entity with the cellar crew tending to it as worker bees tend to their hive. And it is one of my favorite places in the world.

Harvest was not about my reversion to a 9 pm bedtime. Nor was it about learning how many espresso shots your body can take in twelve hours. Nor even how alright you are with leaving a veritable crumb trail of grape skins wherever you go. No, in the end, it was about falling in love with not only the people who make Tablas Creek what it is, but also with a process that has been one of the most gratifying and humbling human experiences my minimal years have yet to afford me.

To walk through the rows of vines in the vineyard, to feel the buildup of sugar between your fingers in a berry, knowing that countless man hours and spreadsheets and lab work have the exact time and date of picking down to the minute, is humbling. To watch the picking crews leave after a night shift to sleep and rest as we come in to start our days, is humbling, for I am convinced these men and women are some type of superhero. To be standing at the sorting table and plucking unlucky creepy crawlies and debris from grapes about to be destemmed and ready to begin the long journey of fermentation is humbling.  To watch the seasoned veterans of the cellar let their experience out to play as they debate amongst themselves what direction they want to take a blend, is humbling. To punch down[ii] the cap of skins that inevitably forms in our fermentation tanks and watch the CO2 escape from it in a witchy cauldron type of way, is humbling.

 

Harvest Intern Blog Pumpover Picture

To test alcohol densities daily and watch the contents of the tanks make the slow progression from a juice to a wine, and then to jump into action and transfer it into barrels at the last possible nanosecond, is humbling. To clean out the metal grates that collect the cellar debris and runoff after the end of a heavy fruit day, let me tell you, is humbling.

So you learn there is no shortage of lessons in the life of a harvest intern, there is no job you are unwilling to do, there is nothing you want to say no to because you want to be involved in it all, as simple as it sounds. You fall in love with it, the process of it. You are there for the beginning, middle, and after a year or two you get to taste the end to the manifestation of your blood, sweat, and espresso.

And the cellar crew at Tablas Creek has everything to do with that ease of falling in love.

The best sleep of my life has been after work days spent with the most ridiculously hilarious, vivacious people I could have ever even imagined. These people, these people made every day of harvest something I was eager to wake up for. From making fun of the men for their slow decline into caveman status as their harvest beards began to overrun their faces, to the inevitable glitter bombing and water wars of Kesha Fridays (shout out to my cellar gals), to the endless rounds of slow clapping if someone would be a bit too eager with a forklift, to the vineyard dogs that would intuitively sense you hitting that wall after hour nine and come up to let you lean into them for a moment, and most fondly to the five-star lunches our Winemaker Neil’s wife Marci (also known as Harvest Mama of the Year) would create, there are countless memories I now carry with me when looking back at my time in that cellar.

 

Harvest Lunch Picture for Blog Post

 

So as this years Harvest closes and my incentive to make hygiene a priority comes back, I can safely say that as sad as I am it is over, I am also utterly content because I get to continue existing here with those that have become family.

As the years have progressed I have grown to understand that the people make the place, the place does not make the people. And Tablas Creek feels at times otherworldly in its sense of community, its altruistic desire to extend that shared sense of self and love for cultivating wines to others in a manner I have never seen before. Before joining this company, yes I enjoyed wine and loved the nuance of it, its seductive fluidity that all wine drinkers can appreciate. But now wine is emotional to me. Seeing how much the Haas family has melded with this land, what they have done to ensure the honesty of their grapes is again, humbling. It is not about what could be easier, more cost-efficient, more along the lines of instant gratification that are all unfortunate aspects of vineyard management, and agriculture in general. For the Haases it is about ensuring that this place, and this type of winemaking will be here for our grandchildren and then their children after them. I believe that to strive for a better future that you will not even see, is true generosity. That generosity is why Tablas Creek has become what you see today.

So cheers Tablas Creek Harvest 2017, you didn’t always smell great but you sure changed my world.

 

References

  1. Harvest Hands, the decline of decent cuticles due to the inevitable blistering and blackening of your hands (and soul) as Harvest progresses.
  2. Punch downs, a form of Cap Management which is physically turning the grapes in the tanks to ensure the skins and the juice evenly ferment. Also the process that gave me my new biceps.

 


Harvest 2017, the End

By Brad Ely

[Editor's note: this is the bookend to Cellar Master Brad Ely's Harvest 2017, the Beginning, posted on August 29th. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to.]

Last week marked the end of fruit for the 2017 vintage with three picking bins of golden Roussanne.  At the beginning of harvest we started with Viognier, and I would have never imagined the last fruit would be white as well. It sounds a cliche, but vintage variation is real, every harvest is different, and it is a beautiful thing.

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The colors of fall are taking over the vineyard. Green lush canopies are shedding leaves and changing colors, becoming gold, brown, auburn and maroon. Taking their winter vacation from a long and strenuous growing season.

Harvest heaved off with a shotgun start. Record breaking temperatures maxed out our thermometers for a week and a half straight, causing rapid ripening, and throwing the whole cellar crew into a frantic pace. Not the most ideal situation as many blocks are finishing veraison (the process of changing from hard green berries, to colorful soft berries with an accumulation of sugar). After the heat wave, we stalled out, with low temperatures pumping the breaks, and giving us cellar team shorter days, and almost whole weekends off. It was a false sense of relief, as temperatures climbed back up, leading to a hot and heavy finish.

Each harvest has its own feel, its own unique personality. While this holds true, each also has a similar roller coaster of emotions and checkpoints in store for us along the way, as the fruits of our labor twist and turn along their journey to liquid magic.

Things begin with feelings of joy and excitement. And it continues for a few weeks, getting back into the swing of things, brushing the dust off skills that haven’t been used since last year. Having the perfect aim with the bin dumper, trying not to lose a single berry, or spill a drop of wine. Remembering every process and procedure. Weighing incoming grapes, labeling tanks, setting up pump-overs, pulse airs, and punch downs in the most efficient order. Recognizing old smells, identifying new ones. Asking lots of questions, experiencing and learning along the way.

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Eventually these skills become second nature again. Before you know it the cellar is buzzing with the daily grind. Fruit arrives at the winery in white bins. It is weighed, sorted, destemmed if red, pressed if white, and sent to its new home for the next two weeks. After a two-week party, what was once juice escapes as wine, and finds its home in oak barrels and tanks for the next year and a half.

As the freshness of harvest wanes, these activities become the regular. Workdays grow longer and longer, arriving as the first light illuminates the vineyard, and leaving well after the sun has set back down. The limits of caffeine consumption are tested. Themed days of questionable music begin to emerge, as a marker to remember what day it was in the first place, and as a way to look forward to the next. Wednesday is Dubstep, followed by R Kelly Thursday, followed by Kesha and glitter Friday (my personal nightmare). Our beloved jamon leg is whittled to the bone, replenished, and whittled down once again.

There comes a point when the fun starts to diminish. Frustration develops, bodies weaken, and spirits dwindle. There is an amount of tired that starts to build, and even the soundest night’s sleep doesn't scratch the surface. Our stained purple hands begin to grow feeble and ache. Thumbs become dry, crack, heal, and then crack again. The slightest bit of contact with acidulated water results in a quick cry for mum. The standard for clean clothes becomes less stringent, and even the stained stuff will pass with a quick smell test. The hot water turns cold with hours of work to go, only to realize  the 12 hour timer set upon in the morning has times out, and it must be reset to continue on.

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Just as it seems the workflow will never end, and spirits are close to being broken, a clearing in the storm occurs. More tanks are being pressed off than being filled, and the constant buzz of the harvest equipment becomes faint. One by one each new wine marches off the cellar floor and into the barrel room, leaving empty spaces where they once resided.

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The last fermenters are dug with mixed emotions. A sense of relief, knowing two-day weekends, a regular sleep schedule, visits with family, and a restoration of social life are on the horizon. A reintroduction to civilization will occur, and we must adapt to normal life once again. As the tiredness fades, and our bodies are rejuvenated, a feeling of post harvest blues sets in. All of the feelings of glory and accomplishment flutter through our daydreams as we clean, and clean, and clean the scene where all of the action occurred. Any remaining dismal sentiment from the end of harvest is quickly forgotten, replaced by thoughts of the great times had, the friendships created, and the new wines quietly resting in barrel.

Eventually, these wines will find their resting places out of our hands, and in the cellars of their final consumers. When you pop a cork, we hope you feel the signature of the harvest with each glass poured. We can't wait for you to make its acquaintance.

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Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

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
2017 22.87 3.74

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 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]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

Foliage


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

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

Roussanne in tank

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

Harvest chalkboard Roussanne and Mourvedre

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

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

Animals back on Scruffy

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

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal Sept Oct

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

Harvest by Week

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

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

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

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

Counoise on the vine early October


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

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

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

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

Harvest chalkboard interlude

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

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

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

Three colors of grenache

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

Mourvedre head trained

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

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

Chalkboard Sept 21

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


Farming in the Blood: Q & A with Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker

By Lauren Phelps

Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker, is living the dream and savoring every moment. We get the inside scoop on what's it's like making wine in the cellar at Tablas Creek and what inspires this fifth generation farming native to evolve his skills into winemaking.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Luis Obispo and raised in Templeton.  We spent a couple years in Shandon.  My dad farmed hay on a couple flats around where the Target is now in Templeton.  My brothers and I started helping my dad when we were really little.  My twin brother and I were the youngest of four.  I remember how we couldn’t use the hay hooks, because we were too small, and my brother and I would push the bales to get them closer to the truck so our bigger brothers could help pick them up.  Eventually we got big enough that we could throw them up into the truck with hooks.  Then as we got older we’d get into the truck and help from there.  Growing up in this area, that’s just the kind of stuff we did. 

When and how did you get into wine?
1996 was my dad’s first year of getting fruit off his vines so I started helping out with that when I was young.  Later, when I was in my twenties, I worked at a steakhouse and met a lot of winemakers.  I was bartending and they were always a really cool crowd of people, so I figured I wanted to try working in the wine industry.  I started my wine career in the barrel room at Meridian where they put me on a machine spinning and washing barrels all day- that’s all I did, it was very monotonous.  From my work station, I could see the guys on forklifts, which looked like a lot more fun, so I eventually moved up to a position that allowed me to drive alongside them.   The forklift work was essentially racing around as fast as I could; it was intense, trying to go faster than the other guys without dropping barrels- it was a challenge but it was a blast.  I took two years off after that harvest and then got a job working in the cellar at Justin Winery where I worked for a couple of years.

What has been your career path to where you are?
While working at Justin I would do weekend events with Chef Jeffery Scott.  We did a few events at Tablas Creek, which is where I met the Tablas Winemaker, Neil Collins.  Neil was a really nice guy and we got along well.  After a few years I was looking to work somewhere where there was more variation and smaller lots to work with.  I reached out to Neil, who said there was an opening at Tablas Creek.  I got the job in 2013, and I worked my way up from Cellar Assistant to Cellar Master and now Assistant Winemaker.

In your view, what makes working in the Tablas Creek cellar special?
It’s got to be working with new varieties, and being with a winemaker and crew that’s open to experimenting.  We don’t have any sort of regimentation in the cellar here, so we’re able to figure out what we like on our own terms.  We’re working with wines that don’t have an established legacy here in the United States and we’ve been given the opportunity to help write their history.  It’s really fun seeing what comes in the doors every day during harvest. 

Craig Edit

What’s your biggest challenge as Assistant Winemaker?
My biggest challenge is part of what I really like about working at Tablas.  It’s working with these new grape varieties and building a log of history and maintaining it with each new vintage and with each variation we try in the vineyard and in the cellar.  My challenge is noting these details, because up to this point all we had was what was in Neil’s head, his knowledge and experience. I’ve been challenging myself to learn more about these varieties and organizing written notes that we can use for years to come.

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
I prefer rustic, country style wines, you know- easy drinking country wines.  I love Tablas, so I drink a lot of our wine.  I like Pinot a lot, I’ve worked a lot of World of Pinot events and I really like tasting those.  Papapietro from Sonoma Coast makes killer Pinot Noir.  And I really like Demetria in Los Olivos, they’re really fun and nice to visit and big fans of Tablas too.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
I'd probably pick the Grenache Blanc for the white because it maintains a great balance between richness and texture without going too far in either direction.  For red, I’d choose En Gobelet not only because I love the wine, but also because I’m really into the story behind the wine.  The farming technique employed to make that wine is really important in the narrative of the future of California winemaking, I think.  Those would be two solid wines I could drink with each meal.

How do you like to spend your days off?
Now my days off are pretty much spent taking Jackson, my two-year-old son, to the beach.  We play soccer, kick the ball around a little bit.  It’s something we’ve both been into.  My free time is spent hanging out with the little man. I used to love to go surf, once he gets old enough I’ll get him out on a board. My fiancée Annika and I spend a lot of time traveling and even more cooking together and learning to pair wine with the new cuisine.

Craig 2

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I guess probably that my Great-Great-Grandfather lived out in the Adelaide. They were part of the Mennonite train that came out here.  So my family’s been here six generations.  That’s a lot of history, and roots in the farming community.

How do you define success?
You’ve got to be happy with the people you work with and the job you do and I think Tablas does a great job at creating that atmosphere.  It’s amazing.  When you walk around working and you just smile and realize, hey I’m at work and I’m really happy, I think that’s success.

Craig 3


Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

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

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

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

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

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

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

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

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

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

And tumble it did.

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

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

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

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

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


Harvest 2017, the Beginning

By Brad Ely

[Editor's Note: With this post, we welcome Brad Ely, Tablas Creek's Cellar Master, to the Tablas blog.]

Friday marked the first day of harvest for us here at Tablas Creek. A whopping 8.72 tons of Viognier for the Patelin Blanc. This is just the soft start of our busiest season in the cellar. Soon the sweet smell of fermentation will be wafting from full tanks, our hands will be stained purple, and we will be busy with the task of guiding grapes through their transformation into wine.

Harvest is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of work in the vineyard. A year of sunshine, rain, wind, temperature fluctuations, frosty mornings, heat waves, all having an effect on the character of the next vintage in bottle. Countless hours of work, making sure the vines produce the best fruit possible. Our job in the winery is not to mess it up. Once the fruit is placed on our doorstep, the vineyard’s work for the year is done.  The vines can rest, and begin dreaming of winter hibernation. Now it is our time, our opportunity, to create something spectacular.

We have been preparing the winery for the last month, cleaning harvest equipment, pressure washing fruit bins, rebuilding pumps, making sure presses work, and tanks are sanitized. We have purchased supplies, new winemaking toys, and tools to fix the new toys when they inevitably break. At times it feels like preparing for battle, making sure every detail of preparedness has been taken care of. Our goal is to come out victorious, with new wines that have reached their maximum potential as our spoils. (Perhaps I have been watching too much Game of Thrones.)

We have also been preparing ourselves, both mentally and physically. We desire harvest to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. That means we need to be as equally prepared as the winery. Safety training, CPR and first aid certifications, training of excited interns, revisiting our standards and procedures for everything harvest related. The row of machines dedicated to supplying artificial energy has appeared in the lab. A coffee pot, espresso machine, and even an iced tea maker, to help us grind through the longest days.  Soon a beautiful leg of cured Spanish ham will appear, fondly known as “The Stinker”, for our snacking delight. The fridge has been stocked with cold libations to help us keep our sanity at the end of a hard day's work.  

We rejoice with the opportunity to stop shaving, (the men anyways) not worrying about looking presentable to the general public. The slow process of transforming into cave men has begun. We have had our last suppers and bits of summer vacation, both friends and family knowing we will be out of social commission for the next few months. Every bit of down time will be needed for sleep, a decent meal, and perhaps a stab at the pile of dirty, grape-stained laundry looming in the corner of the bedroom.

Relationships will be built, friendships made, stories told, and also created. So many hours spent with one another provides a connection deeper than the average 9 to 5 workday experience. Musical tastes will emerge, and then be sub sequentially suppressed by the opposition.  Senses of humor will arise, movie quotes rehearsed, dirty jokes told, and a few curse words may take flight. We have come together with a common objective, to raise wines through the start of their long journey to our dinner table. If we are successful, we will enter harvest as a team, and exit as family.

Harvest is the best time of year. Tensions are high, and so are emotions of excitement and thrill. Creating fine wine is an exhilarating feeling matched by very few experiences in life. It is the perfect combination of science and nature, with opportunity for artistic expression every step of the way. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations of creating something magical gain traction around every corner.

This morning, we way our first day of red fruit, beautiful clusters of Pinot Noir that will ultimately become the Full Circle. Perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of what harvest will signify for the vineyard? The last arc in the annual circle it takes on its mission to produce the world’s most noble beverage.

Meanwhile, we'll celebrate the beginning, in style.