When All Roads Lead to Regenerative Organics: An interview with Tablas Creek's Harvest 2021 Interns

By Ian Consoli

Tablas Creek has a highly competitive harvest internship program every year. We receive multiple applications, and typically only two are selected to harvest alongside the regular cellar team. This harvest was particularly competitive as it marks the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest in history. (You can read more about the significance of this event in this blog post by Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg from 2020).

So who did we select? I took the time this week to sit down with two individuals inspired by the promise of regenerative organics. Jennifer (Jenny) Wootten I know well, as we have worked together in the tasting room since she came on as a barback in 2019. Lauren Danna I have gotten to know as this harvest has progressed. Both are inspiring young women who have worked hard all harvest and are beginning to set their sights on their future. One, preferably, involving Regenerative Organic Certified.

I can't wait for you to meet them.

Who are you?

Jenny

I'm Jenny Wootten, and I'm a harvest intern at Tablas Creek.

Lauren

I'm Lauren Danna, and I am also a harvest intern at Tablas Creek for the 2021 harvest.

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna sorting grapesJenny and Lauren on the sorting table

Where did you grow up?

Jenny

I grew up in San Diego, California, in a community called Scripps Ranch.

Lauren

I am from Yuba City, California, a smaller rural town in Northern California.

 

When and how did you get into wine?

Jenny

I got into wine in high school. My interest was piqued on drives through wine country. I had a mixture of interests in culinary arts, chemistry, and biochemistry. I ended up going to Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] for wine and viticulture and stayed in the wine industry afterward.

Lauren

My interest started my junior year of junior college when I was living in Florence, Italy. I majored in Agriculture Business and was exposed to wine through a culture of wine class based on the Italian region that I was living in. That's where it sparked.

 

Is this your first grape Harvest?

Lauren

This is my first grape harvest.

Jenny

This is my second grape harvest, and my first one was in 2019 at Adelaida.

 

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

Lauren

I heard about Tablas Creek through a simple web search. I am really interested in regenerative organics. So one day, I searched "regenerative organic wineries," and Tablas came up everywhere. I did a bit more research and happened to know some people that worked here, so I reached out to them, they filled me in, and I decided to apply.

Jenny

I've been working in the tasting room at Tablas Creek since May of 2019. One of my friends was an officer of the Vines and Wines club on campus, and she made an announcement that Tablas Creek was looking for other bar backs. I wanted to get more involved in the industry, so I started bar backing and eventually started pouring in the tasting room. I graduated this May with more of an interest in production and working in the cellar. So I thought I would go for it and see if they would have me as a harvest intern in the cellar to get a little more exposure.

Jenny in the CellarJenny Wootten in the cellar (Photo: Heather Daenitz)

How did you end up working harvest with us?

Lauren

After speaking with the couple of people that I knew, I connected with Neil and Chelsea. They were interested in hiring me. The timing worked out with when my lease in Denver, Colorado, ended. The stars seemed to align, so here I am doing a harvest!

Jenny

I reached out to Chelsea and asked if they were still hiring interns, and they ended up giving me an interview. They let me know they would be happy to have me on. They have helped me learn more about our production process, which is particularly interesting because I have been talking about the production process in the tasting room for a long time. It's an entirely different thing to experience it firsthand.

 

What routines do you have after long days to prepare for the next day?

Jenny

I like to meet up with friends after work and grab a beer or a cider. Then I go home, shower, and unwind, and try to fall asleep before 10:30.

Lauren

If there's still sunlight when I get home, I like to do something active because it helps me reset. If not, I'll go home, shower, and get prepped for the next day. Like Jenny said, trying to get to bed before 10 or 10:30, but that doesn't seem to happen too often. I feel like I always think I have time to get things done after work, and all of a sudden, I was supposed to be in bed an hour ago.

 

What has been your best memory from harvest 2021?

Lauren

Within my first two weeks here, I was helping fill barrels, and I was unfamiliar with the equipment I was using. On the little remote, there's a knob where you control the speed, zero is slow, and 10 is fast. We're filling a barrel, and I'm watching to make sure we fill it all the way to the brim. My coworker, Kayja, left me for just a second, and suddenly I realized it was getting full. She says, stop it. And instead of turning it to 0, I turned it to 10, and wine goes everywhere, spouting three to four feet up. I was drenched in wine.

Lauren in the CellarLauren Danna examining a tank (Photo credit: Heather Daenitz)

Jenny

A week before I was supposed to start working full-time as a harvest intern, I came in at 7am to work in the cellar before my tasting room shift. That might be one of my favorite harvest feelings because I was so excited to get into it. I got to load a press and do a bunch of other stuff. It was just super fun because I missed the cellar a lot.

 

How does it feel to be a part of the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest ever?

Lauren

It's awesome. It's so exciting. Every day I am in disbelief. Especially because that's what initially attracted me to the winery. Seeing the cellar side of it and how it translates into the wine, not just the growing. It's awesome. And I'm so fortunate. It's been a really great experience.

Jenny

My excitement about Tablas Creek being the world's first Regenerative Organic Certified™ winery has been built up through working here for so long. I really want to pursue advocating for the spread of Regenerative organics in the wine industry. Being a part of this harvest has helped me build a passion and excitement for moving forward in my career.

 

What's your ultimate goal in cellar work?

Jenny

My ultimate goal in cellar work is to become more comfortable with all the heavy machinery and processes. In your first harvest, it's overwhelming when you're working with a lot of the new equipment. In your second harvest, it's still overwhelming because you don't use a lot of it most of the year and have to refresh on everything. As someone who wants to pursue winemaking as my future, my goal is to be comfortable in the cellar.

Lauren

I don't really know what my future holds in a cellar. Similar to Jenny, my goal is to continue becoming more familiar with the equipment we use.

 

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere, where would you pick?

Jenny

I think Sardinia or Southern Italy. Before, I would've said Northern Italy because I think Italian reds are really cool. I love the structure they have, the brightness, acidity, and ageability. But recently, I've become a lot more familiar with Southern Italian and Mediterranean island-based wines, like Corsica and Sardinia. Working in that more Mediterranean circle in a unique environment would be super cool.

Lauren

No winery in particular, but a winery up in the Northern region of Italy. I just fell in love with the region when I lived there, and I just love the area and the people and the culture.

Jenny

And a place that follows regenerative organics.

Lauren

Yeah!

 

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

Lauren

2019 Tablas Creek Counoise! It reminds me of when I lived in Italy and had some Chiantis that I said, I can never part ways with this, but I'm going to have to, because I won't live here forever. I've really learned to love how we make wine and the style here, and it was so new. Definitely my favorite as of right now.

Jenny

I am really into trying new bottles from all over the world from different producers, so that's pretty tough. One bottle that is most memorable for me is this 2016 Madiran Malbec/Tannat blend. I think about it somewhat regularly, which is kind of nerdy, but I'm okay with that.

 

What's next for you?

Jenny

Within the next year, I'm going to start the OIB Masters of Science and Wine Management based out of the University of Montpelier. I need to learn French for it, which is a little daunting right now, but that's okay. Before that, I'm waiting for a couple Southern hemisphere opportunities to come about, possibly doing a viticulture internship.

Lauren

This is the question I asked myself pretty regularly. I'm not really sure what's next. I want to try so many other things, and maybe another harvest is in the cards, but that's another year away. I know that I want to be a part of some sort of production moving forward, although not necessarily grapes. I do plan to continue to be involved in Regenerative Organics. However that may be, I'm not sure, but that's kind of where my head is right now with the future.

 

Would you rather:

Fly or breathe underwater?

Jenny

I would rather fly because I'm a terrible swimmer.

Lauren

Fly so I could get to places so much faster, and I could just go whenever I want.

Cake or Pie?

Lauren

Pie

Jenny

Cake

 Old World wine or New World wine?

Jenny

Old World

Lauren

Old World

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Jenny

Winemaker

Lauren

Viticulturist

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


What do you do with a vineyard flock when it can't be in the vineyard? Regenerate your forests.

In the winter, when the cover crops are tall and green, having sheep in the vineyard is pretty easy. There's plenty of food for them. The dormant vines aren't of interest to the flock, who focus on the grasses and weeds. You build up your soils without having to bring in outside fertilizer. You minimize your tractor passes and the soil compaction and diesel exhaust that come with them. This scene, from a few years back, is typical:

Losing the sheep in the cover crop - Roussanne block

The cumulative impact of the sheep, year after year, has been transformational for our soil. The roughly 200 sheep we have drop some 750 pounds of manure per day. All that organic matter provides nutrients to the vines, but also increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Given that we don't have a water table at any depth that roots can get to, our ability to dry-farm is dependent upon how much water our surface layers can hold. The calcareous soils that led us to choose this property are a great start. But the sheep have been a big help here too, and are key to our ability to farm regeneratively, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil.

The challenge comes in the summer months, when they can't be in the vineyard because they would happily eat the leaves and fruit off the vines. Plus, it stops raining in April and as the grasses dry out the flock's food gets scarcer. If you have to bring in feed from offsite it can get expensive. Plus, sheep are natural wanderers, and can develop health problems if they're kept in the same small area day after day. So, what to do? For most of the past decade, they summered on the block we call Jewel Ridge, which we purchased in 2011 but hadn't started planting until recently. But over the last two years we planted about 25 acres of the 60 or so that were cleared there, reducing our summer grazing space by nearly half.

One resource that we do have is our forest land. It's harder to run sheep in the forest than it is in an open space, because setting up the fences requires more work. But there's nothing about sheep that makes them less happy to be in the forest, and nothing about the forest that makes sheep an unwelcome addition to the ecosystem. Far from it. According to our Shepherd Dane Jensen, hundreds of years ago the forests in California's Central Coasts would have been home to massive herds of grazing animals like deer and elk, and those grazers played a big role in keeping the forests healthy. Rather than let grasses and shrubs accumulate, competing with the larger trees, grazers turned that biomass into manure, which got incorporated into the soil. With the arrival of European settlers, land was subdivided and fenced off, the migratory herds of grazing animals hunted for food, and fires (another natural part of the ecosystem) repressed. Forests got denser and shrubbier, which in the 21st Century combine with the warming climate to make the fires that do start more dangerous and destructive than ever.

Re-enter our flock of sheep. Last summer we started grazing them in some limited forest areas that we could enclose. This summer, we've started cutting fence lines through the denser growth so they can get into areas we couldn't touch last year. It's been amazing watching them work. They clear the invasive grasses, the shrubs, even the poison oak. This photo shows them in their first day in a new block, attacking the poison oak with gusto:

Sheep grazing on poison oak

After a few days, they've turned those dry surface plants into manure, and eliminated some of the competition for the oaks. Plus, their work will help that land absorb more of this winter's rains, which will further strengthen the oaks. Check out this "after" photo of the flock in a forest block, with Bjorn the Spanish mastiff typically sleepy as he usually is in daytime. At night he's on high alert, protecting his flock from mountain lions and coyotes:

Sheep grazing in the forest with Bjorn

In the vineyard, we move the flock daily, mimicking the natural patterns where herds or ruminants stay together for safety (the origin of the term "mob grazing") but migrate based on the pressure of predators so that they don't stay anywhere long. In the forests, we enclose a somewhat larger area of a few acres at a time, but still move them every few days, making sure we don't over-graze any section or neglect any others. We know that doing so is good for the forests, and just as importantly, good for our fire risk.

Based on the questions I get, I think that a lot more wineries would have sheep to help with weeding in the winter if they could think of what to do with them in the summer. Here's one suggestion: look to your forests.


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Going Different Places, Doing Different Things: An Interview with Second-Year Intern Kayja Mann

By Ian Consoli

Every year we hire two or three interns during the harvest season to help us manage the 400+ tons of fruit that come through our cellar. Sometimes, one of those interns turns out to be a rock star and we invite them back for a second tour. Such is the case this year, as Kayja Mann has returned for another round after debuting here during the harvest of 2020. Cellar work during harvest, while it’s exciting and rewarding, is also physical and wet, with long, grueling days, so when an individual decides to do it again, I feel obligated to sit down and see where the motivation comes from.

The first thing one notes about Kayja is that she always has a smile on her face. Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi recently supported Kayja from the sideline as she ran a 100k in Lake Tahoe (65 miles!!) and Chelsea noted that her smile at the end of the race was as consistent as any day in the cellar. So, as you can imagine, Kayja brought that same positivity to her experiences in the cellar. She truly is a delight and I can’t wait for you to meet her.

Kayja Mann on a forklift at Tablas Creek

Who are you?

My name is Kayja. I graduated from Cal Poly SLO a year and a half ago. I have been trying a bunch of different jobs and living in various places ever since. I studied business in college. When COVID hit, my plans kind of changed, and I started to form an interest in wine.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Sebastopol, California, so definitely wine country.

Did you form an interest in wine while you were growing up in Sebastopol?

No, not at all. My parents don't drink wine that much. It was all around, but I didn't have much interest at all. My interest in wine started during quarantine when I took a spirituality in wine class at Cal Poly with a couple of my really good friends. The course was online, so we'd get a bottle of wine and go sit on the lawn for class. It provided us a platform to try a bunch of different wines, and we started paying attention to other varietals from different places. The course was really cool because it focused on the spirit of the wine, like if this wine was a location, what location would it be? It was a different way of thinking about wine.

How did that new love of wine lead you to Tablas Creek?

A friend studying enology was planning to do a wine harvest during the fall of 2020. With COVID happening, my plan to go abroad was no longer an option, so I asked her, "Can I do a wine harvest? Could anyone do that?" She said, "Yeah, just apply to a bunch of places." I did, and Tablas Creek was the one I wanted the most because of its regenerative and biodynamic practices. Neil [Collins] was nice enough to get back to me and let me know; sorry, we're all full. Then a couple of days later, he called again to let me know a spot opened up if I still wanted to join. I came out, met everyone, and thought, alright, this is sweet. I'm going to be a part of this group. And I quickly signed on for Harvest 2020.

Right, this is not your first harvest with Tablas Creek. Why did you decide to come back for a second round?

I had such an awesome experience last year. I came in with no background in wine and figured it out with the help of the team. It's such a comfortable environment to work in. Everyone's super supportive and gives you a lot of agency to figure things out on your own. They act as resources if you want to come and ask. That was huge. I really liked the work environment where it's like, take that project and run with it. After that great experience, I thought it'd be cool to come back and build on what I learned last year. Luckily, they welcomed me back.

Kayja Mann working the sorting table at Tablas Creek

Do you see a career in wine for yourself?

Last year, it was something fun and different. I honestly didn't know if I would come back because I'm still figuring out what I want to do. But now I am here again. So truthfully, I don't know, but this year I'm coming into it thinking, is this something that I could see myself continuing to do? Maybe I'll have an answer for you at the end of harvest.

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

I was just trying to find wineries in the area. I looked up something super vague, like sustainable wineries or sustainability wineries in Paso, or maybe biodynamic or regenerative, something along those lines. An article popped up on Tablas Creek, so I went to the website and liked what I saw. I previously worked for Dr. Bronner's, a co-founder of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. I was excited to see another company pursuing that certification process and be here last year when the certification was officially released.

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere in the world at any winery. What would you choose?

That's so tough. I want to say New Zealand, but I think that's just because I want to go there. I know the weather doesn't work for this, but if there was a winery in Steamboat Springs, CO, where I live now, I would love to be a winemaker there.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

I've been into bubbles recently and really like the Pet Nat from Lone Madrone. But probably the most memorable bottle was a vin jaune from the Jura region. It was funky and floral and definitely stood out because it's just such a different taste.

What's next for you after this harvest?

I'm heading back to Steamboat Springs to hopefully be on ski patrol at the resort there.

Would you rather:

Cake or pie?

I'm going to go with cake. As long as it's not chocolate cake.

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly, for sure.

New-world wine or old-world wine.

Both.

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

I don't know enough about what a viticulturist's day-to-day looks like, so I have to go with winemaker.

Kayja Mann in front of barrels at Tablas Creek


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog