We check in on the vineyard's progress at the end of May

The end of May marks the end of our danger of frost and the end of any chance of spring rain.  As such, it is a good time to assess where we are.  Short version: things look good, and we're on track for a solid harvest at a reasonably normal time.  For the long version, read on.

Flowering2013_0004

We're toward the end of flowering, with even the latest-flowering grapes (like Mourvedre, pictured above) squarely in the middle of the flowering process.  Flowering has taken place under largely ideal conditions; rain, excessive heat, and strong wind can all impact flower fertilization and lead to shatter, the condition where large number of unpollenated berries leave clusters with an uneven, gap-toothed look.  We've had warm but never hot weather, with May's highs reaching the 50's twice, the 60's twice, the 70's and 80's ten times each, and the 90's six times, but only once topping 95, on May 12th.  It doesn't get much more ideal than that.  Our flowering time is about average, and suggests a harvest beginning the first or second week of September.

Looking back into April, we had only one frost night, on April 16th, the morning that Chelsea Franchi took the photos that illustrated her blog The Beauty of Frost Protection. Most of the vineyard had come out of dormancy by mid-April, but our frost protection was largely effective in staving off serious damage.  We estimate that some 10%-15% of the vineyard was affected, and expect to see some impact on yields in those areas.  Happily, that was the only night where we had frost damage this year, and the four nights in which we had to run our frost prevention systems was one of our lowest totals in recent memory.  The grapes most affected were Grenache and Grenache Blanc (typically among the most frost-prone because of their precocious budbreak) which is a blessing in a way, since these grapes are typically among the highest-yielding and typically need aggressive crop thinning anyway.

We finished the winter's rainy season at just under 15 inches, which is just over half of the 28 inches we'd normally expect.  Coming on the heels of a 17-inch rainfall in the winter of 2011-2012 (roughly 60% of normal) we're now firmly into a drought cycle here in Paso Robles.  The vineyard does not appear to be suffering, at least not yet, but we're keeping an eye on the vines' stress levels and may need to turn our our irrigation lines in a systematic way for the first time since 2009.  If we do, we'll be following the pattern we've used in previous droughts: deep watering once or twice early in the growing season, so as not to encourage root growth at the surface but instead to promote growth deeper, where natural reserves of water are more likely to be found in future years. 

As an indication of the level of drought in the area, Las Tablas Creek never ran steadily this winter (the few hours around our December rainstorms notwithstanding) and Lake Nacimiento, into which this area drains, is at just 44% of capacity.  It's disappointing that after such a promising start (we received nearly 12 inches of rain in November and December) the season ended up so far below average. But we're not worried about the drought affecting quality; looking back we've had two multiple-year drought cycles in the last decade, and the second year of the droughts (2003 and 2008) were both excellent vintages, with yields about average. 

Throughout the winter, we have been moving our animal herd from block to block, leaving them in place roughly a week while they chew down the cover crop and fertilize with their manure.  They covered about 40 acres in between December and mid-April, when we had to move them to unplanted areas to protect the new vine growth.  We've been pleased with the health of the vineyard blocks in which the animals have been kept, though we believe that the most powerful impacts will be felt only in the long term.

Sheep in the vineyard April 2013

Over recent weeks we've been concentrating on getting the cover crop that the animals didn't eat -- and the manure, when they did -- disked and spaded into the soil, both to eliminate competition for the available water and to make sure that the nutrient-rich organic matter is mixed in. And the vineyard looks great, vibrantly healthy, with new growth a spring-like yellow green and solid but not enormous crop levels.  We still expect to do some significant crop thinning through the vineyard, but it doesn't look anything like as heavy as 2012's banner year.  A vineyard view, taken yesterday:

Vineyard in the Setting Sun May 2013

In the cellar we've been finishing up the bottling of the 2011 reds and working on the blending of the 2012's, both red and white. One of the last cases of 2011 Esprit rolled off the line yesterday:

Case of 2011 Esprit rolling off bottling line

The 2012 blends look strong, and it's clear that it was a great year for Roussanne, Syrah and Mourvedre.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc includes our highest percentage of Roussanne ever (75%) and is rich and lush, but structured.  The 2012 Esprit, whose percentages aren't quite finalized yet, is going to include lots of Mourvedre and Syrah, both of which were luscious yet with excellent tannic structure, and relatively little Grenache, which was very pretty but less complex.  It will make a wonderful base for a terrific Cotes de Tablas, and we are also planning on about 800 cases of varietal Grenache, which we're excited about, as well as lesser amounts of varietal Syrah (which will be a knockout) and Mourvedre.  For whites, we were so impressed with our Viognier in 2012 that we have decided to bottle it on its own for the first time since 2006.  We're also continuing with varietal Roussanne and Grenache Blanc bottlings, though with the high percentage of Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc, quantities of varietal Roussanne will be low.

Next up for us in the cellar is getting the 2012 blends made and put into foudre or tank. In the vineyard, we'll be completing the shoot thinning process to make sure that the vines are carrying an appropriate quantity of fruit and that we ensure good air flow through and around the ripening clusters. Then we have a bit of a respite before the crush of harvest.  It will be nice to take a deep breath.


We conduct a vertical tasting of Syrah in honor of Paso Robles Syrah Month

It’s Syrah month here in Paso Robles.  At the beginning of the year, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance launched a “varietal of the month” program that cycles through the major grapes grown here, and are supporting it with a grower blog, a winemaker interview and a new installment of the Paso Wine Man video series:

In celebration, we decided to open up every vintage of varietal Syrah we’ve made, going back to our first-ever varietal red wine: the 2002 Syrah that we made three barrels of for our new wine club back when three barrels was plenty to make it around to all our club members.  Since then, we’ve made a Syrah each year other than 2009 and 2011, when spring frosts cut our Syrah crop sufficiently that we sacrificed the varietal Syrah to protect our blends.

One other element of interest was tracking how the three-year stretch (2005-2007) when we added 10% Grenache to our varietal Syrah changed the wines’ expression.  For all our commitment to blending, at this vantage point at least the group generally preferred the wines we made pure. Our tasting notes:

  • 2002 Syrah (100% Syrah): A dusty, spicy, minty/menthol-elevated nose. In the mouth, it’s mid-weight, with an inky soy-like darkness and a little cedary oak. There’s the classic Syrah creamy texture, and still firm tannins on the end.  A nice showing for this wine, which was more youthful than any of us expected.
  • 2003 Syrah (100% Syrah): A higher-toned, balsamic and meat drippings nose with a chalky minerality showing through. More of the tangy meat drippings on the palate with dark red fruit. Less density than the 2002 but more elegance, and in a very nice place now.
  • 2004 Syrah (100% Syrah): The nose just screams Syrah, with meat, pepper, mint and mineral components. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, showing blackberry and pepper and dark chocolate, and black cherry coming out on the finish. Opulent compared to the first two wines, with fruit/acid/structure all in synch. A consensus favorite of the earlier vintages.
  • 2005 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): This began a three-year experiment where we put 10% Grenache into our varietal Syrah. A rich, gamy, wild meat and juniper nose. The mouth is less juicy and more savory than the 2004 with flavors of olive tapenade and meat drippings, and still with big tannins that come out on the finish. My dad noted that the addition of Grenache made it taste more like Tablas Creek but less like Syrah. One to wait on, we agreed.
  • 2006 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): A similar nose to the 2005, focusing on the savory, meaty, balsamic and tapenade-laced nose, but somehow more gentle. The flavors reminded me of the drippings from a garlic and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb, with additional, and welcome, flavors of blueberry and licorice. Medium-weight and in a very pretty place for drinking now.
  • 2007 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): Less giving on the nose than the previous wines, a little kiersch liqueur note but not much more. The mouth is big, rich and creamy with flavors of milk chocolate and good acids but with massive tannins.  We all thought that there was a ton of potential but that the wine was still so tightly wound that its complexity was still masked by a layer of baby fat and those huge tannins. It did open up with time in the glass, so a decant is suggested if you must open one now.
  • 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): An inviting nose of pine forest, juniper, and tangy blackberry. The mouth is reminiscent of the 2004, but with an added dramatic saline minerality that I loved and lingering flavors of bacon and blackberries and cream, but firmly dry. The finish is energetic and elegant with a brambly soy note. A consensus favorite among the younger vintages.
  • 2010 Syrah (100% Syrah): A nose unlike any of the previous vintages, inky and foresty, smelling dark and saturated. On the palate, powerful flavors of black licorice, chalk, and bacon, with a creamy blueberry note and a long, berry-laced finish. The palate is terrific but the nose still coming around, which suggests a short-term rest in the cellar.

A few final conclusions. One, that Paso Robles really is a spectacular place for Syrah.  We found a combination of the grape’s classic savory, bacony, blackberry notes with a creamy minerality and acidity that everyone around the table attributed to our limestone soils.  That set the wines apart from many Syrahs made elsewhere in California, and from the great Syrahs that come from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, none of which have limestone and all of which show a lower-acid, lusher profile.  The wines were instead reminiscent of Cornas, the Northern Rhone’s sole limestone-rich red appellation, perhaps a bit less polished than its better-known neighbors just to the north, but with an energy and vibrancy that we all were proud of. 

Two, we generally agreed that we preferred the purer expression the Syrah character in the wines that were 100% Syrah to the more Southern Rhone character of the three vintages where we added 10% Grenache, though those wines were appealing in a different way, with more garrigue and mid-palate texture, and had their proponents as well.  The tasting was a good reminder that relatively small percentages make a significantly difference in the finished expression.

Finally, our favorites were 2004 and 2008 in large part because of how each, in its own way, spoke powerfully of the Syrah grape in all its glory: meaty and minerally and fruity and creamy: the classic flavors that my wife Meghan called “butter in a butcher shop” when she first tasted it out of foudre. They also finish with substantial tannins but don’t come across as blocky or heavy.  I’m expecting a similar evolution with our 2010 Syrah that is going to wine club members next month.  We’re all in for a treat.


Harvest 2012: The End of the Beginning

By Chelsea Franchi

And so it appears, just like that, harvest is over and it is time for a season-end wrap up.  While I wish I could tell you there was a wonderful celebration as the last cluster was ceremoniously placed in the last tank, I can't.  Because that would be a lie.  Instead, harvest finished the same way it always does, taking a quiet bow and exiting the cellar while we were all too busy to notice.  To be perfectly honest, I'm shocked anyone here would trust me to put anything in print, insofar as my brain, along with everything it controls, is very, very tired.

VintageCellar

We have processed countless clusters of fruit, pumped-over, punched-down and pulse-aired every fermenting tank of red twice a day, every day until it was ready to be shoveled out, pressed off and barreled down.  We have spent far more time at work with each other than we have spent with our significant others.  We have overplayed and worn out all of our favorite albums, playlists, and Pandora stations.  I can speak only for myself when I say that my house is a mess and I have a horrible feeling that getting back in to the gym is going to be ugly when it comes to cardio (however, I have been doing a bit of strength training in the form of shoveling fruit out of tanks).  I have gulped tepid coffee, fought off colds and ignored the fact that I REALLY need to find my way into a salon to get my roots touched up and my ends trimmed (we're being honest here, yes?)

But here's the thing: it was all worth it.  We have thousands of gallons of wine both fermenting and resting in cellar now.  Whites are beginning to get topped up, we only have two lots of reds that still need pressing off and almost every single barrel in the cellar is full.  While the color we have been seeing this year is a touch lighter than it has been the last few years, the flavors and aromatics we're dealing with are on a whole new plane.  The reds in particular (perhaps just because we are more familiar with them at this point) have been showing themselves as dynamic, full and more floral than in vintages past.  And there is a lot of it.  Blending this year should be wonderfully challenging as we have so many strong and diverse lots at our fingertips.  I'm already excited for the next step when we haven't even finished this one, and that's a pretty good feeling.

Some of the scenes that stuck in my head from this harvest:

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Draining a tank of Counoise to prepare for pressing

VintageBarrelWinemaker Ryan Hebert filling barrels

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Grenache going off to bed, so to speak

VintageFerment
Pink towels (our favorite) covering fermenting tanks of wine

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A bird's eye view of the cellar, mid harvest

WinterSticks
Lastly, what the vineyard looks like now, shut down for the coming winter

While the pre-harvest blog was quite a bit more buoyant than this one, it is a true reflection on how we operate here in the cellar.  We eagerly anticipate the next step in the process, always thrilled with what is to come.  And then, after we have worked our tails off, we're exhausted.  The singular driving force that keeps us going is always that "next thing".  And, really, what you might think of as the "end" of harvest is just the end of the beginning.  It's still early in those grapes' path to the wine you'll taste in bottle in, oh, two or three years.  So here's to the next stage in the process.  If it goes as well as the last two months, we'll all be happy.

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A custom pair of lees-spattered jeans


Harvest 2012 concludes, and we couldn't be happier

We finished the 2012 harvest yesterday, with the last "clean-up" pick, where we go back through the late-ripening blocks where we left the clusters that weren't quite ready on our previous time through.  Typically, these pickings are a little ugly, with fruit not in the best condition, and there are times when they don't make it into our estate wines.  But this year, even this final pick came in looking great and with nice numbers.  This is a fitting summation of the 2012 harvest: consistently high quality from beginning to end, and across all the varieties we grow.  With the last of the year's roughly 750 red bins on the sorting table, Jake Miller, Tyler Elwell, Levi Glenn and Charlie Chester smile up over the last bin of Grenache:

Last bin of grenache 2012

The final yields look very much like those from 2010, a little higher on the whites and a little lower on the reds, much more than they resemble the frost-diminished 2011 or 2009 vintages. By varietal:

Grape 2010 Yields (tons) 2012 Yields (tons) % Change
Viognier 22.5 21.2 -5.8%
Marsanne 13.2
12.6
-4.5%
Grenache Blanc* 34.8
45.5
+30.7%
Picpoul Blanc 9.4
6.4
-31.9%
Vermentino* 19.1
22.6
+18.3%
Roussanne
33.9
46.4
+36.9%
Total Whites 132.9
154.7
+16.4%
Grenache 71.1
72.8
+2.4%
Syrah 47.7
37.1
-23.3%
Mourvedre* 69.3
57.3
-17.3%
Tannat 14.5
17.1
+17.9%
Counoise 16.8
17.5
+4.2%
Total Reds 219.4
201.8
-8.0%
Total 352.3
356.5
+1.2%
* denotes varieties with increased acreage since 2010

The yields per acre are actually a touch lower than 2010 (about 3.4 tons/acre instead of 3.5) as we brought about 6 additional acres into full production in the last two years, divided more or less evenly between Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre.  Looking variety by variety, two changes seem to demand some explanation.  The increase in Roussanne comes because some (maybe as much as a quarter) of our Roussanne didn't make it in the cool, damp, late 2010 vintage and was lost to rot.  That was the only variety to be so affected in 2010.  And the decline in the Mourvedre harvest this year seems to me attributable to the sunburn that afflicted Mourvedre disproportionately in the two weeks of heat in early August.  Mourvedre tends to be relatively light in canopy, and can therefore be damaged by sunburn more easily than leafier varieties.  Based on how similar other grapes were to their 2010 numbers, that suggests we lost something like 20% of our Mourvedre harvest, or roughly 12 tons, to that heat.

We target yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre as the sweet spot for expression of place.  Too much more than that and you compromise your intensity.  Too much less and the wines can be so dense that they express the fruit and structure more than the soil.  Of course, we take what we get; our yields in 2011 were about 2.3 tons per acre.

Sugar levels at harvest did climb a bit from the lows we saw in 2011, but are still on the lower side of what we've seen historically.  This is consistent with our belief that older vines produce full flavors at lower sugar levels than young vines do.  Our average Brix at harvest since 2007:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix
2011: 22.39 avg. Brix
2012: 22.83 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 22.8
Grenache Noir: 24.3
Grenache Blanc: 21.7
Marsanne: 18.7
Mourvèdre: 23.3
Picpoul Blanc: 22.6
Roussanne: 22.3
Syrah: 24.2
Tannat: 23.7
Vermentino: 20.9
Viognier: 21.3

The pH at harvest was healthy, averaging 3.65pH.  For some context, our average pH at harvest since 2007 has been:

2007: 3.67 pH
2008: 3.64 pH
2009: 3.69 pH
2010: 3.51 pH
2011: 3.50 pH
2012: 3.65 pH

In duration, the harvest was somewhat short compared to usual, taking 55 days between the beginning (September 5th) and the end (October 31st).  By contrast, 2011's harvest took 51 days, 2010 took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.

The quality of the fruit looks tremendous, and the lots we harvested in early Sepetmber already tasting good: luscious yet with balance.  We'll learn a lot more over coming weeks as the later-ripening lots finish fermentation and start becoming tasteable, but we're happy with what we're seeing. 

For the next couple of weeks we'll enjoy the aromas of the last of our lots fermenting in the cellar, and our winemaking team of Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert and Chelsea Magnusson will be start the long process of evaluating what we've got and starting to piece together the first blends.  But that's all in the future, and for now, we'll join the cellar and vineyard team (from left, below: Tyler Elwell, Gustavo Prieto, the back of Jake Miller's head, Ryan Hebert, David Maduena, and Charlie Chester) and celebrate:

End of 2012 harvest - vineyard


Harvest continues under ideal conditions, with high quality and above-average yields

The first half of October is typically our busiest stretch of harvest, and 2012 was no exception.  Between October 1st and 15th, we brought in 107 tons off of our estate and another 60 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas line.  That's something like 30% of our expected 550-ton total, in just two weeks.  It was routine for us to be pressing both whites (mostly Roussanne, at this stage) and reds (mostly Syrah and Grenache) then turning around the very same tanks and destemming other reds into them.  You get a sense of the complicated dance involved with the below photo, where we have Grenache in the press and Roussane bins arriving.

Pressing syrah and processing whites

At the end of September, we'd finished picking Viognier, Marsanne and Syrah off our estate, largely finished Grenache Blanc, and gotten a good start on Roussanne. By mid-October we'd finished off the Grenache Blanc, started and finished Picpoul, nearly finished Roussanne, made a lot of progress on Tannat and Grenache, and begun Counoise and Mourvedre.  We paused briefly for the rain on October 12th, which amounted to about a quarter-inch and didn't do much beyond wash some dust off the grapes, and used the couple of days of not harvesting to press off tanks and free up fermentation space in the cellar.

That challenge -- finding space to put the new fruit when most things are full of actively fermenting grapes -- has been the major issue with this harvest.  Most every lot has come in about 20% heavier than our estimates, and the relatively compressed harvest compounds the challenge.  Most red lots need ten days or so on their skins during fermentation, and so if all your fermenters are full of lots that are less than ten days from when they were picked, what do you do?  Whites are less of a challenge, just because they can go straight into barrels if need be, but reds need to go into some sort of tank.  Happily, the weather has not been hot, with the average high temperature between October 1st and 15th just 79 degrees.  Nights dropped into the 40's twelve out of the fifteen days, further keeping progress gradual, and in these benign conditions we've chosen to leave things out in the vineyard an extra day or two rather than pressing lots off a day or two early.

We've also filled our greenhouses with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make Vin de Paille [more on the process here].  This traditional method for making sweet wines concentrates the juice and gives the sweetness of late-harvest without the baked flavors. The newly-harvested Roussanne grapes sit on the straw below:

Vin_de_paille_2012_1

We keep pushing up our yield estimates, and are now thinking that we'll see yields around 3.5 tons per acre across our vineyard, just slightly below what we saw in 2010.  The main difference between the two vintages is that 2010 was an exceptionally cool year, while 2012 has been warmer than average.  This suggests that the character we'll see out of the fruit will be show the lusher yet structured flavors of a warm, higher-production year like 2000 or 2005 more than the minerally, more spice-driven 2006's or 2010's.

With the turn toward cooler weather in early October, it's definitely feeling like fall in the vineyard. The Syrah and Mourvedre vines are starting to turn color, and the lower angle of the sun and the warmer tones of the light are noticeably different than even a month ago. You get a sense from the below photo:

Feels like fall 2012

We're ready for things to wind down, too, and expect to be done with harvest by the end of next week. A September start date and an October end date is what is supposed to happen, but something we've only seen once since 2003.  We couldn't be happier with where we are.


Harvest update: perfect ripening conditions dominate late September, but we see signs of fall

The second half of September continued to point our way toward a productive, top-notch harvest.  Asking for cool (but not cold) nights and warm (but not hot) days, and ample sunshine, is almost a cliche in wine country, but that's exactly what we got, providing excellent ripening conditions and little additional stress on the vineyard.  For grapes like the Grenache vines below, sheltering under their canopy of leaves, it is just what the doctor orders.

Grenache on scruffy hill 1

Late September is a critical period where heat spikes or unusually cold weather can have a disproportionate impact on the quality of the finished wines as so many of the varieties are ready or nearly ready to harvest.  Fortunately, we saw some of our most regular weather of the year: two straight weeks of days topping out in the 80s or low 90s and dropping down into the 40s or 50s at night.  While every day made it into the 80s, we hit 95 just once.  And while every night dropped at least to 55, we dropped below 45 only once.  A graph tells the tale:

September 2012 Temp Chart

It's becoming clearer that yields are going to be fairly good, at least for the grapes outside of Mourvedre and Roussanne.  Of the four grapes that we've finished, only Vermentino, of which we have more acres in production, has surpassed the totals that we harvested in 2010, while Viognier, Syrah and Marsanne are below 2010's totals but above what we harvested in both 2009 and 2011.  That impression is borne out by the measurements; for those three grapes, we've picked 2.77 tons per acre we have planted.

In those two weeks, in addition to completing our estate harvest of Syrah, Viognier, and Vermentino, we've begun and finished our Marsanne, brought in a good chunk of our Grenache Blanc, some more Roussanne, and our first Grenache Noir.  You can see how clean and pretty the fruit looks in the below photo, of one of the first Grenache Blanc bins to arrive in the cellar:

Grenache Blanc in bins Sept 2012

For Patelin, we have brought in the rest of the Syrah, a good chunk of Roussanne and our small plot of Marsanne, and even gotten a start on Grenache Noir -- some for the Patelin red, but mostly for the new Patelin Rosé.  Overall, including the Patelin lots, we've brought in just over 260 tons, which puts us squarely at the midpoint of what we expect.  On October 1st, that's just where we want to be.

Looking forward, we're in the middle of what's forecast to be a brief warm-up (3 days around or just over 100) before the current high pressure breaks down and we see some significant cooling and, maybe, by next weekend, even some clouds and our first chance at some light rain.  We're not worried about it, but it's a reminder that however summer-like it seems now, with the equinox behind us we're not that far away from fall.


Introducing the new Patelin de Tablas Rosé

We love our Rosé. It shows the charms of Mourvedre when made into a pink wine by being rich yet refreshing, complex yet appealing, and worthy of pairing with substantial food.  But it's always been a bit of an outlier in the world of rosés, somewhat darker than most, somewhat fuller-bodied than most, and just a little too expensive for most restaurants to serve in the way that most rosé is drunk in restaurants: by the glass.

So, early this year, we set ourselves to the task of producing a rosé under the Patelin de Tablas label that would complement the rosé that we've been making since 1999.  We decided to base it on the world's most popular rosé grape: Grenache, and we identified Grenache vineyards within Paso Robles that we could harvest specifically for this rosé program.  These vineyards are starting to arrive in the cellar.  The photo below shows one bin, ready for processing Friday.  Note Grenache's typical beautiful garnet color:

Patelin Grenache for Rose

We don't yet know what the final composition of the wine will be, but we know it will be overwhelmingly based on this Grenache, harvested specifically for the Patelin Rosé and direct-pressed into tank.  The rest will come from saignéed lots of Mourvedre and maybe even a little Syrah.  We're guessing that the finished wine will end up around 80% Grenache, but we'll see how harvest goes.  We want the wine to be a light salmon in color, more typical of a French rosé than the more cranberry tones of our estate Rosé, low in alcohol and vibrant, juicy and refreshing.

What is direct-press, you ask?  Happy to show you.  I shot a short (90 second) video in the cellar Friday documenting the process.  The video begins with Grenache coming down our sorting table, into our destemmer.  We then pump the berries and juice into our press, which isn't even pressing... just turning the grapes and letting the free-run juice flow out.  That juice is being pumped into a stainless steel tank, where it will start to ferment.  We did eventually turn on the press to squeeze the berries, but even in that portion, the color was only gently pink.

Look for the new 2012 Patelin de Tablas Rosé to debut in March, retail for around $20 and be available by the glass at your local dining establishment of choice.

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Harvest, weeks one and two: zero to sixty in no time flat

Most vintages, harvest starts slowly, with a few bins the first day, then a little break, then a selective pick off another block, then another break, then finally a larger picking, then another break.  Not this year.  We started on September 4th with our first lot of Viognier for the 2012 Patelin Blanc, and by a week later, we'd already brought in just over 85 tons of fruit, including Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne and Roussane for the Patelin program, and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Syrah, Vermentino and even a first picking of Roussanne off of our estate.  A shot I took today in the cellar will give you a sense of the complexity of the cellar dance, with reds (in this case some of the Patelin Syrah we received on September 6th) being pressed as whites (in this case, bins of Vermentino off the western edge of our property) are arriving:

Vermentino bins through press

Yes, this volume at the front end of harvest is unusual.  By comparison, the first 8 days of harvest brought in 32 tons last year, 20 tons in 2010, 10 tons in 2009, 26 tons in 2008 and 15 tons in 2007.  A scene like the one below, with dozens of bins of Syrah sitting outside the winery waiting to be destemmed (from September 6th) is much more typical of mid-October than early September:

Bins of syrah outside winery sept 6 2012

The weather has been warm, though it's moderated since early August's serious heat.  In September so far, we've had 9 days that have topped out in the 90's, 8 days that have topped out in the 80's, and only one day that topped out in the 70's.  This is a dramatic change from the last two vintages, which saw significantly cooler temperatures at harvest time, but is more or less normal for Paso Robles.  And we really haven't seen any extremes; this month we've only had 13 hours with temperatures over 95 and only 5 nights that dropped into the 40's, so the vines are continuing to photosynthesize rather than shutting down either due to cold or to conserve water in the heat.

Yields, so far, look somewhat higher than we were expecting, maybe 10%-15% larger than average, though still below the highs of a vintage like 2005, 2006 or 2010.  We've already harvested twice as much Viognier off our vineyard (with a few blocks still to go) as we did all of last year's frost-decimated crop.  Of course, much will depend on the Mourvedre and the Roussanne, both of which seem to be a bit lower this year. 

It's a winery truism that when you think yields are down, they're down more than you thought, and when you think yields are good, they're up more than you thought.

For the Patelin, we're expeting more Syrah, as well as our first Grenache and Grenache Blanc in the next week or so, while at home, it looks like reds other than Syrah may still be a while yet.  Walking through the Grenache blocks still shows a lot of pink berries -- and even the occasional green one -- rather than the deep red we'd expect at harvest.  Counoise is the same.  Mourvedre looks closer to ready, but is still low in sugar and developing flavors.  Meanwhile, we're pressing off the Syrah that came in the first week and making space.  We thank the cellar assistants like Wade Johnson (below) for making the necessary room.

Wade shoveling


Harvest 2012 Begins!

And, as of 1:30pm today, we're live, with the arrival of the first fruit of the 2012 harvest.  As usual in the world of Rhones, we started with Viognier, this for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc from Paso Ridge, at the warm north end of the El Pomar District.  The guests of honor:

First Viogner bins for Patelin Blanc

A September 4th start is just about average for us; since 2000, our average start date is September 7th.  

The very warm start to August does not appear to have accelerated things dramatically, perhaps because the vines were carrying a relatively healthy crop, perhaps because vines tend to shut down photosynthesis when it gets up around 100.  Sugars do appear to be a bit higher this year than in the past few years, and I expect our five-year trend of decreasing average sugars at harvest to end this year.  Still, we're pleased with the balance we're seeing, with acids holding strong even as the grapes start to look and taste ripe.

Looking ahead, we'll move forward this week with more Viognier and our first Syrah from some of the warmer vineyards from which we source Patelin.  We're expecting the Chardonnay that we use for our Antithesis to be the first estate fruit we pick, either tomorrow or Thursday, and before the end of the week we'll likely bring in both the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir and the tiny nursery block of Pinot on our own estate.  By early next week, we're looking at our first Rhone varieties off the estate, likely Viognier and Vermentino, as well as more Patelin lots.  By two weeks from now, we'll be inundated.

Looking back, the years with the most similar start dates are 2000 (September 8th) and 2002 (September 6th).  But the year that this reminds me most of in how it's developed is 2005, which was also a productive year (somewhat more so than this one) with a warm summer but a fairly late start to harvest.  If that holds, we're in for a treat.  The 2005's were and still are deep, powerful and rich, but with good freshness and balance.  We'll know, soon enough.


Pre-Harvest Jubilation

By Chelsea Franchi

We had our scale certified last week, which was just one more reminder of the ever-present fact that harvest is barreling down on us (no pun intended).

Barrel
Steaming barrels in the afternoon sun

Harvest is what we live for (well, work for) here in the cellar.  It is the hub of the winemaking cycle.  Without harvest, what would we do the rest of the year?  Harvest is, without a doubt, the most exciting time of year for me.  It's exhausting, exhilarating, and stimulating.  You really get to know the people you work with during harvest (to everyone I work with: my most sincere apologies).  With everyone being pushed to their limits mentally and physically, you're bound to let your true colors show.  That's part of what makes harvest so exciting - getting the opportunity to push yourself and becoming familiar with your own breaking points.  While most people would look at that as a negative (and I can understand why), it's one of the many reasons I love my job as much as I do: it's challenging, in every sense of the word.  And I like that.

The start of this year is even more testing.  The lab equipment was dusted off and fired up last week to start running numbers on fruit samples (mostly for Patelin fruit) and Neil and Ryan are off in France.  Which means, those of us who are left here have the opportunity to own the cellar (for a few weeks, at least).  And by all accounts, it looks like we're more than up to the challenge.

Pipette
Lab equipment at the ready

We've been checking numbers (sugar, pH and total acidity) and tracking the progression of said numbers.  The presses are clean and ready and the sorting table and must pump are both lying in wait.  Picking bins have been brought out from storage and for the early part of this week, we're focusing on sanitizing barrels and tanks so they will be ready for the new juice of 2012.

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The barrel brander

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Racking arms waiting to be scrubbed clean and tanks getting power-washed

It's nice to have these rituals before the full force of harvest smashes down around us - the misty fall mornings spent chugging coffee as the first bins of fruit pull onto the crush pad, driving a forklift through the silence of night with only two tiny headlights and the stars to light the way, the incessant squishing of my water-logged boots, the hammering sound of fruit raining down onto the sorting table.  The wet heat of a fermenting tank and the thick, rich smells of grape juice evolving into wine.  Lead-heavy exhaustion replaced by buoyancy the second the stereo is cranked up (Journey, please!).  Climbing into the press after its first use of the season - and for that matter, climbing into the press after its last use of the season.  And what harvest mosaic would be complete without those six beautiful words spoken at the end of an impossibly long day:  "Hey, who could use a beer?"

It would be interesting to see how my co-workers would arrange their harvest montage, but this is my view.  These are the snapshot experiences I look forward to every year.  I'm ready.