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January 2011
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March 2011

Green, Green, Green

We're in an intermediate sunny period between two winter storm systems, which is exactly what we want at this time of year.  We've been worried about how advanced the local flora was, so having alternating rain and cold serves the twin purposes of continuing to replenish our groundwater (we're up over 23 inches for the winter after last week's five-plus inches) and reminding the grapevines that sprouting now would be hazardous.

And we're forecast for an even colder storm system this weekend, which probably won't drop a lot of rain, but might give us our first snow since a February 2009 storm.

The alternating sun and rain have also produced some rapid growth in our cover crop, and I took the chance to go out this weekend to explore the vineyard.  It's gorgeous right now, green and lush, with the dark brown of the grapevines providing contrast.  A few of my favorite photos are below.  First, one that shows the electric green color of the cover crop in the late afternoon sun:


We're in the middle of pruning, and the next photo shows one of the remaining 2010 tendrils from a Mourvedre vine, wrapped around a trellis wire:


Up on top of the hill is one of our old oak trees, with an (occupied) owl box about ten feet up.  It made a nice arc against the fair weather winter sky:


Finally, one long shot looking west at the Santa Lucia Mountains, vineyard in front, grassy pastures in the middle ground, and rows of oak-clad mountains disappearing to the south and west:


Our crazy Paso Robles microclimates

As was forecast, we've had a wet week.  After yesterday's 1.72 inches, we're up around 3.5 for the week, with the largest dose of rain forecast for today.  And the weather pattern is supposed to stay unsettled, although we'll get a mostly sunny break this weekend for anyone heading out to take advantage of the Presidents' Day holiday.

Yesterday, I posted a status update on Facebook that it was a monsoon out at Tablas Creek, and got several comments from friends in town asking, essentially, "really?".  My wife called to ask if I'd seen the giant rainbow, and said that there had been a few sprinkles in town but more blue sky.  Not true out at Tablas.  Just 10 miles west of Paso Robles, it was stormy all day, and downright torrential as we got into the afternoon.

The snapshot below drives home just how much of a difference it makes to your rainfall totals where you are within Paso Robles.  We got an inch and three quarters.  The Templeton Gap got less than half an inch.  Town was less than a quarter, and the two weather stations east of town barely got anything at all.  It's not quite as dramatic when you look at the annual totals, but we have more than double the rainfall of J. Lohr (more or less the center of the appellation) and triple what they've gotten in Shandon, at the AVA's eastern edge.


It's hard for me to get used to how much small distances and small changes in elevation can change the weather here in California.  I grew up on the East Coast, where you could safely assume that whatever your weather was, it wasn't notably different a half-hour away.  But the interaction between the cold Pacific Ocean and the hot, dry California interior is so shaped by the height and orientation of the coastal mountain ranges that it significantly complicates the climate picture. 

I think that the biggest benefit that will come from the Paso Robles sub-AVA proposal, assuming it successfully navigates the federal review process, will be the greater recognition of the often dramatic differences of climate and soils within Paso Robles.  It's a huge AVA, and yesterday's weather demonstrates how different one part of it can be from another.

A (major) change in the weather for Paso Robles

Photos are probably the most dramatic.  In just a couple of days we've gone from:




And it's just the beginning. We've gotten nearly a half an inch this morning, and we're expecting storms on Tuesday, Friday, next Monday and next Thursday.  Based on the forecast rainfall totals, we should see at least 5 inches of rain over the next couple of weeks, and maybe considerably more.  And it couldn't be more welcome.

After a remarkably wet December, we've had one of the driest six-week mid-winter stretches on record.  Our wet December weather pattern ended with 2.16 inches of rain on January 2nd.  For the six-week period between January 3rd and February 13th, we received only 0.32 inches of rain.  Still, we're at 17.5 inches total for the winter, which is about average for this time of year.  But we'd be a lot happier to see another ten or so inches more before the end of spring, both for the long-term health of the vineyard and for our production in the 2011 vintage.

The recent sunny weather has been nice for our staff and good for our tasting room; our traffic was up 44% over the first six months of the year, which we all attribute primarily to the good weather given that during rainy December our tasting room traffic was off 9%.  Still, we're getting toward the season where we worry about frost, and the good weather has pushed the local flora a couple of weeks ahead of normal.  The almond trees around town are all blooming, and the fruit trees are starting to push.  Sap is beginning to weep out of pruned grapevines, and we know that if the warm, sunny weather kept up we'd be at risk of seeing budbreak in March.

And given that it can frost into May here, that would not be good.

So, we're happy to see the rain return, and for the forecast for 10 days of alternating wet and sun, with frosty nights whenever the clouds clear.  Bring it on!

Olive Relocation Project

We're nearing the end of the construction that will eventually provide us with two new rooms for our cellar, nearly double our office space and -- most visibly -- a new tasting room.  I wrote last week about the efforts we're making to have the environment we're creating tell our story for us.  One of the efforts toward making our new series of terraces as appealing as possible is incorporating as much shade as possible for visitors looking to shelter from the often baking summer sunshine.  We're planting nine sycamores around the front patios and parking lot that in time will grow to provide ample shade.  Sycamores (also known as plane trees) are, after all, the shade tree of choice in Provence, often planted in stately avenues on either side of country roads and driveways.

But though we bought the largest sycamores that we could find (about 18 feet high) they're still young trees and will take some years to flesh out.  Because sycamores are water-loving, their roots penetrate very deep over time, which makes the survival rate of uprooted and replanted mature trees low.  So to provide a more mature look to our new front entrance, we decided to move five of the roughly 150 olive trees we planted around the property in 1995 to our new entrance.

Olives, unlike sycamores (and unlike most other trees) have a very compact root ball, and so are comparatively easy to move.  My dad remembers seeing to proprietor of Marques de Caceres in Rioja move olive trees that were hundreds of years old to save them from destruction.  And the equipment now available to facilitate the unplanting and replanting is remarkable.  The photo below, shows the series of blades after they have sliced down through the soil and then interlocked around the tree's roots:


But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  The first step is to position the blades around the tree's base and then force them, one at a time, into the ground, severing any smaller roots cleanly:

IMG_0002  IMG_0005

Then the tree is lifted out of the ground: 


And driven to its new location (in this case, next to one of our new terraces):


The olive is placed in an already-prepared hole in the ground, and the blades are then removed from around the root ball:

IMG_0009  IMG_0011

Et voila:


The process is a remarkable one to watch, and the impact dramatic on the new spaces to which the mature trees are relocated.  Look for the new (old) olives when you make your first visit!

Telling the Tablas Creek story... without words

As regular readers of the blog (or anyone who's visited Tablas Creek in the last six months) will know, we're in the final stages of expanding our winery and building a new tasting room.  The building is done, and we're working on landscaping the outside and finishing and furnishing the inside.  Watching the outside appearance take shape has made us more and more excited about the narrative that our setting will tell to visitors, before we even open our mouths.

I'm convinced that many wineries are missing opportunities to use the experience a visitor has in visiting their winery to communicate their core values. Sometimes, that's an unavoidable consequence of a tasting room's location, but just as often it seems to me that it's just a lack of forethought. We've tried hard to make the most of the opportunity we're offered by this fresh start to put forth a story about us that is unique, clear, and compelling.

Head-pruned-mourvedre The first thing that we want to emphasize is that a visitor to Tablas Creek is coming to a working vineyard and winery.  This is not a hospitality center.  It's not a tasting room with a show vineyard out front.  It is the entirety of our operation, where everything from the propagation of our grapevines to the growing of our grapes and the making of our wines takes place.  The area we've dedicated to our parking is nestled inside one of the most beautiful vineyard blocks we have, of dry-farmed, head-pruned Mourvedre.  Dry-farming is noteworthy for the concentration it brings to wines while retaining elegance.  And head-pruning is traditional in Chateauneuf-du-Pape though comparatively rare in California.  So in addition to emphasizing that they're at a vineyard, it will start to tell the story of what sort of vineyard they're visiting.  The photo to the right was taken in that block, just after pruning.

Next, we to communicate why we chose this place.  There were three factors that brought us to Paso Robles in 1989, at a time when the region had essentially no Rhone varieties in the ground and not much of a reputation: a favorable climate, ample winter rainfall, and limestone soils.  The climate is implicit to most visitors, and our new patios outside will give guests a great place to relax, picnic and enjoy the sun.  The limestone will be more explicit, as we've surrounded the parking area with a dry-laid limestone wall similar to the one around our current parking area.  We're also embedding limestone boulders in the concrete of our patios and integrating them into our landscaping.  Below on the left is a photo of our mostly-completed limestone wall, and on the right of one of the limestone boulders on our patio.

Limestone wall  Embedded_boulder_0001

We're also distinguished by our history, both our association with Beaucastel and our decision to import our grapevines from France in 1989.  We have a vintage Beaucastel sign, salvaged from the Beaucastel estate by Neil during his stint in the cellars there, outside our current tasting room, with the distance (and direction) noted.  This sign will move to our new front entrance.  We'll also be bringing several of the large pots of mother vines up from our grapevine nursery and using them to decorate our patios and landscaping.  These vines are the foundation of all our vineyard plantings, as well as those of the hundreds of other vineyards and wineries to whom we've sold cuttings over the last fifteen years.  I'm not sure what the American Rhone movement would look like had we not brought over these vines (or had we not made the decision to share them with other growers) but it would surely look far different than it does today.  The Beaucastel sign, on the left, and a collection of mother vines, on the right:

Beaucastel_sign  Mother_vines

In addition, we'd like our visitors to see how we're working in an environmentally responsibile way.  It may not be evident that our vineyard is farmed organically, but two of features of our environmental efforts will be apparent to visitors.  The new parking area is tucked under solar panels that will be immediately evident upon arrival.  Upon departure, visitors will see the wetland that we created to naturally treat our winery wastewater across our driveway from the parking lot entrance.  The view of the solar panels, below left, is particularly distinctive in contrast to the ancient technology of the dry-laid stone wall in front of it.  The wetlands area is below, right, in a photo taken during a blue heron's visit a couple of summers ago.

Solar_limestone_0001  Blue_heron_0002

So, we hope that visitors will have learned a lot about who we are before they've even stepped through our front door.  And once they enter, they'll be greeted by walls of windows that look into the cellar on two sides of the tasting room, and chalkboards updated each day that let visitors know what's going on in the cellar.  We'll be installing a bank of foudres (like the one below, left) in one of the two rooms, and placing our upright fermentation tanks (below, right) in the other.  These large wooden casks are unusual in California, though traditional in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  They allow us to age our wines without overlaying a heavy oak imprint on the flavors.

Foudres  First_Syrah_2009_0006

Hopefully, before we even open our mouths, a new visitor to Tablas Creek will have a good sense of who we are and what we value.  What's that message?  Well, if it's something like "you've arrived at a traditional estate winery that has embraced innovative, environmentally responsible techniques to produce rich but mineral-driven wines with a French Rhone heritage" we'll be on the right track.