Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture
A post-harvest round table discussion with Tablas Creek's winemakers

Putting the Vineyard to Bed for Winter

We're enjoying the warm weather after our first winter storm passed through last night.  It dropped about an inch of rain on the vineyard, and the wind completed the defoliation of the vines begun by the two weeks of frosty nights in late November.  This is a quiet time here, with much of our vineyard crew on vacation back in Mexico and the cellar ticking quietly away.  I love this time of year, both because it's such a change from the hot, dry weather that we typically enjoy during the summer, and because the feel of the place changes so much, so fast, as cover crops begin to grow and the hillsides turn from brown to green in a couple of weeks.  A photo from this morning shows some of the storm's aftermath:


The main tasks in the vineyard at this time of year are to get nutrients back into the ground so that they can be washed deep by the winter rains, to seed the soil with a cover crop that will provide a habitat for beneficial insects, keep down erosion and enrich the soils, and to take more aggressive anti-erosion efforts where we feel it's important.  We're actually most of the way through this work, and expect to be done by next week.

So far, we've cleaned off any fruit that wasn't harvested, typically second-crop clusters that were left on the vines because they weren't ripe, and put that into our compost pile.  Then, we've spread about 550 tons of compost across the vineyard.  This compost is a mix of compost from our own compost pile and organic compost that we buy by the ton.  The addition of a few tons of compost on each acre helps dramatically restoring the balance of nutrients in the soil.

The next addition to the soils will be sea bird guano, which is incredibly rich in nitrogen.  After we apply that this week, we'll go through and disk each vineyard row to begin the process of mixing these new nutrients with the topsoil.

After the soil has been disked, we'll plant what Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Neil Collins describes as "nitrogen-fixing, weed-starving, soil-building" cover crops.  The cover crops we use over most of the property are a mix of peas, oats, vetch and clovers, which fix nitrogen into the soils and whose roots hold the topsoil in place during what can be intense winter rains.  We seed about half the vineyard with our cover crop mix, and let the other half seed naturally from the surrounding flora.  We're also seeding about 10 acres with a proprietary organic "good bug blend" which provides a particularly welcoming habitat for beneficial insects.  More about the cover crops, with some great photos from the spring, can be found here.

Finally, as our last preparations for our winter rains, we'll be ripping the soils across (perpindicular to the slope of) our head-pruned blocks with a yeoman's plow.  The deep furrows that result encourage the soils to absorb any water that may be flowing down the hillsides.  And finally, on areas such as roads where plowing is not practical, we'll lay down straw to help hold the soil in place while the cover crops get established.

One more photo will give you an idea of where the vineyard is now.  This is a Syrah block, and Syrah vines always hold on to their leaves later than most grape varieties.  Still, most of the leaves are off, and you can see the beginnings of the growth of the natural cover crop, tiny patches of green among the fallen leaves.  I'll update this view periodically throughout the winter.


Facebook users can see the complete photo album taken this morning here.