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January 2012

Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard

By Levi Glenn

"Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend."  It has probably been some time since most of you have read the metaphorical novella Animal Farm by George Orwell.  At the moment, Orwell's line seems quite fitting for Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Within a week we will become the proud owners of twenty-odd Dorper sheep as well as a few Barbados.  We're also nearing completion on a limestone lambing barn made almost entirely from reused materials (a quite handsome one I might add).  At the beginning of December we received fifteen more laying hens, and a month from now we will have three little Yorkshire piglets.  Goats will be added later to make the sheep feel insecure, and cows are somewhere in our future. The chickens are below left, and the barn below right:

591 577

We aren't accumulating farm animals to give me the opportunity to dispense vague literary references.  What we are trying to accomplish is to increase the overall biodiversity of our estate.  Two years ago we started to farm Biodynamically on 20 acres of the estate.  One of the main tenets of Biodynamics is to promote biodiversity.  While the most visible components may be different animal and crop species, the most important impacts on the vineyard's health is the microbial biodiversity that diverse flora and fauna encourage.

Our new herd of ruminants will reduce our weed population in the vineyard, but there's more to it than that.  As they munch, they also are fertilizing the vineyard (use your imagination) which reduces the number of tractor passes, lessens soil compaction, reduces equipment repairs, and allows our tractor operators to focus their efforts elsewhere.  All this translates into lower costs now and reduced environmental impacts down the road.  The herd will be in the vineyard during most of the dormant season, roughly from November through March.  If left in the field past bud-break, the sheep could start to sample the young tender leaves and cause serious losses.  The cows, which represent fertility in the Biodynamic ethos, will provide us with manure we need for our Biodynamic preparations and our green waste/cow manure compost.  As this program grows, we hope to make all the compost we need on the property.  The pigs will be, well, tasty. 

IMG_1311As for flora, there are over 200 producing olive trees on the property, and we planted almost 50 more this year.  Every fall -- well, most falls -- following the grape harvest, we pick the olives and press them into the green-gold olive oil many of you have sampled in our tasting room.  Unfortunately, in May of 2011, just as the olive blossoms were at their peak, we received an unseasonal rainstorm.  It has left us with so few olives that there isn’t enough to make olive oil this year.  Still, the olive trees attract and support different insect and microbial life than grapevines, and they're nice to look at.  In addition to olives, each of the past few winters we have planted a variety of peaches, pears, cherries, apples, and quince.  Some of the fruit and olive trees are actually intermixed in certain vineyard blocks, much like many diversified farms throughout the Mediterranean.  Fruit produced is eaten by our vineyard crew as a fresh afternoon snack or handed out to the winery staff.

"Living soil" is a term often used in the world of organics and Biodynamics, and refers principally to healthy soils with high microbial activity.  These microbes take organic matter in the soil and break it down into forms that are accessible to the plant's roots.  All we have to do is provide these microbes with comfortable surroundings.  So we apply compost, incorporate the cover crop, till the soil to provide oxygen, and don't apply herbicides that would otherwise ruin their party.  These little microscopic field hands do the rest of the work for us.  Biodynamic preparations are principally designed to encourage these microbes.  Two that we use are Biodynamic Preparation 500 (BD 500, or horn manure), and Barrel Compost (BC).  Both are concentrated compost teas that are sprayed specifically to increase soil organic matter and stimulate these unseen microbes.  Think of them as super food for microbes.  The horns:

BD 500 Horns 2

Bees are another addition soon to make an appearance on our own property (our Sweet_peaneighbor to the west has kept beehives for years).  We have lots of fruit trees to pollinate, plus all the native wild flowers and the cover crops that we seed every fall to attract beneficial insects.  These cover crops, like the sweet pea pictured right, provide habitat for the bugs we want so that they will go out and eat the bugs we don't, such as leafhoppers and spider mites.  This will hopefully translate into less spraying (oh, and making my job easier).  I'll be leaving the beekeeping to someone else.  That way I lessen the chance of having to stab myself with my Epi-Pen.   

Biodiversity is probably not going to make a significant impact on the quality of our wines in the short term.  But we expect the healthier soils that we are building to improve the long-term health of the vines, and their longevity.  If we can keep our vineyards healthy and productive at ages forty and up (an age at which many California vineyards are having to be replaced) the long-term impact on quality could be dramatic.  And healthier vines should produce grapes in better balance and more reflective of their terroir.  On Francois Perrin's recent visit, the wine lots from the vineyard blocks we coverted to Biodynamic in 2010 were notably compelling.

Plus, the changes we're making are the next logical step in trying to become a single farm unit, where we produce as much as we can from our own property, and reduce outside inputs, which should further encourage the expression of our terroir.  With our initial work on Biodynamics we are taking an important step forward.  We will never get to the point where we are completely self-sustained, but we are on our way.

I'm told that each animal on our farm will be named after an employee.  Anthropomorphism can be fun!  Hopefully none of our pigs will start to walk on two legs, and the sheep won't bleat, "four legs good, two legs better."  Apparently one little piglet might be named Levi.  I'm fine with that, as long as the other two are not named Napoleon and Snowball.

[Editor's Note: With this post, we welcome Viticulturist Levi Glenn as a contributor to the Tablas Creek blog.  You'll be able to follow his posts under the category Viticultural Revolution.]

A Dry (but Picturesque) Beginning to the 2011-2012 Winter

In the post The unwelcome implications of another la nina winter for Paso Robles vineyards from early December, I worried that our winter would be cold and perhaps dry, neither of which are desirable for the 2012 vintage.  It appears that, at least so far, it has been even drier, and even colder, than we'd expected.

December was one of the driest on record in Paso Robles, with just 0.46 inches of rainfall so far this month and no prospects of more before the new year.  By contrast, last December saw 10.34 inches of rain, and an average December since 2005 brought us 4.36 inches of rainfall.  The chart below will give you a sense of just how unusual this December has been.  It only covers the last seven years, because that was as far back as the data archive on the Tablas Creek weather station.  I'd have preferred a longer date range, but its averages probably aren't far off given that it includes two drought years (2006-2007 and 2008-2009), two wet years (2009-2010 and 2010-2011) and two more or less normal years (2005-2006 and 2007-2008):

WinterDecember RainfallRainfall YTD end of Dec.
Final Winter Rainfall
2011-2012 0.46 4.76 ?
2010-2011 10.34 14.26 36.42
2009-2010 5.81 15.68 36.86
2008-2009 3.51 5.53 14.85
2007-2008 4.02 5.52 24.18
2006-2007 2.70 3.51 9.84
2005-2006 3.65 4.06 28.31
Average 4.36 7.62 25.08

For all that our December has been exceptionally dry, our year-to-date rainfall is within range of what we've seen in four of the last six winters.  But I was struck, as I went back in the archives of old forecasts for late December, how many of them forecast remarkably wet weeks, with multiple inches of rain.  It's not supposed to be sunny and nice for Christmas in Paso Robles, as it is now.  It's supposed to be stormy and wet.  And our long-term forecast is not predicting any rain even in the 8-10 day out range.

A year which gives me some hope is 2005-2006, which is the last la nina pattern before 2010-2011.  That year, we got 24 inches of rain after December.  In last year's la nina winter, we got 22 inches of rain in the new year.  If we get something like that this year, I'll be thrilled.

Meanwhile, I took an afternoon just before Christmas to prowl around the vineyard and see how things look.  This isn't usually much fun at this time of year because of the clay and mud; you either get stuck out in the vineyard or sacrifice a pair of shoes in the effort.  But this year, no problem. First, one of my favorite photos, of Mourvedre vines, bare in the sun, showing the contours of the vineyard in the setting sun:


The principal work in the vineyard after harvest is to seed the cover crop.  You can see the neat lines from the seeder between rows of Roussanne:


The next photo shows the cover crop closer-up.  Typically, at this time of year, it's several inches deep already.  This year, it's just getting started:


The colors are still beautiful, more fall-like in their oranges and browns than winter-like in their greens and blacks:


The bare, unpruned vines make wild patterns that play in the light:


Finally, two shots taken by Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson on one of our many frosty mornings.  We've seen below-freezing temperatures 20 of the 27 nights so far this month.



May your December days be full of sunshine.  If you have clouds, send them our way!

A Tale of Two Grenaches

About a week ago, I got back from our annual pilgrimage to the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays event held at the beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel each fall.  At this event -- which I wrote about a few years ago and which I highly recommend -- each winery is expected to present a seminar to the roughly 200 guests on a topic of their choosing.  I've conducted blending seminars, focused on obscure varieties, and delved into grapes in depth.  This year, I presented a seminar titled "Grenache: Red, White, and Coming to a Vineyard Near You".  In the research into acreage statistics I did in preparing for the talk, I realized that the data suggests a fascinating narrative about the Grenache grape in California.

Bounty of HarvestGrenache, pictured right at harvest, is a grape of enormous importance around the world.  It is the Rhone Valley's most widely planted grape, and along with significant plantings in Spain and Australia, accounts for the second greatest world-wide acreage of any wine grape.  Its history in California dates back to the 1860's.  [For more on Grenache's history and characteristics, I refer readers to the post Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache from 2010.]

Despite Grenache's long history and the increasing popularity of Grenache-based wines from Europe, Grenache in California has had a checkered history.  For many wine drinkers who learned about wine in the 1960's and 1970's, "California Grenache" was sweet and light in color, and had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980's.  More recently, most of this Grenache acreage has found its way into blends, often jug wines, and gone unacknowledged.  Acreage in California has declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres (I've been unable to find when it peaked, or exactly at what level) down to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 6170 acres today.

At the same time, Grenache is in the middle of a renaissance.  James Laube, writing in the Wine Spectator last year, called it "one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom" and in premium areas it has become downright scarce.  In Paso Robles it is now one of the most in-demand grapes, and commands a premium price.  We could have filled a boat with the Syrah we were offered for our Patelin de Tablas this year, but it was a struggle to find the Grenache we wanted even though Grenache is more productive and easier to grow. 

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that Grenache can be both on the rise and on the decline.  But looking at the acreage data in detail shows a more complex story, in which Tablas Creek plays a part.  For there are really two Grenaches, and I'm not referring to Grenache Blanc.  When we started to research the available clones of Rhone varieties in California, we were not thrilled with what we found.  Many clones appeared to have been chosen (if that is not too strong a word) for productivity rather than high quality.  When we looked at, particularly, Grenache and Mourvedre, the cluster sizes and the berry sizes were both enormous, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, and the flavors were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting.  Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated and overcropped, but we thought that there was something inherently different about the raw material.  It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.

We weren't the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache.  Perhaps spurred by our actions, ENTAV licensed a handful of California's grapevine nurseries to bring in a range of new clonal material, and there have doubtless been unauthorized importations as well.  But the net effect of the arrival of these new clones has been dramatic.  Grenache has been planted in high quality areas where its previous footprint was negligible at the same time it's being pulled out of the Central Valley, where its quality has historically been low.  Some acreage statistics:

Acreage by County 1995 2000 2005 2010
Fresno 3083 3128 2483 1789
Glenn 503 503 503 157
Kern 1418 1154 107 99
Kings 270 271 239 239
Madera 3605 3674 2401 1869
Merced 387 315 150 125
San Joaquin 637 567 415 372
Stanislaus 849 758 282 148
Tulare 167 398 253 232
Total Central Valley
11019 10768 6833
Amador 8 10 11 14
Calaveras 0 0 2 3
El Dorado 8 9 16 26
Lake 0 0 13 15
Mendocino 38 41 65 103
Monterey 133 111 153 132
Napa 10 17 21 26
San Luis Obispo 7 50 114 326
Santa Barbara 8 115 164 228
Sonoma 36 55 66 108
Total Coastal & Foothills
250 410 625

The Grenache planted in the Central Valley has been pulled out at an annual rate of about 4% since 1995, accelerating to 6% since 2000.  By contrast, Grenache acreage in coastal and foothills counties has grown at about 10% per year since 1995, a rate that increases to 15% per year if you exclude Monterey County, which seems to me to be an outlier in the data.  Of course, it's important to recognize that there are Grenache vineyards going in and being pulled out of most of these counties, and that while older clones are being pulled out of the Central Valley, there are also new, higher quality vineyards being planted in places like Lodi.

San Luis Obispo County's rise is worth noting, particularly since almost all of this acreage is in Paso Robles.  From a nonentity in 1995 with just 7 acres, it now has the fourth most acreage of Grenache in California, with 50% more acres than Santa Barbara, the next-most-planted coastal county.  In fact, the three counties with the most acreage are all in the Central Coast, whose acreage is nearly triple that of the North Coast and fifteen times that of the Sierra Foothills.

What does this all mean for the future of Grenache?  I think it's all positive.  The grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as importantly being pulled out of the wrong places.  The clones that are available are better than they've ever been before.  In general, the producers who are working with Grenache are Rhone specialists, which suggests it's in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California's next big grape would be.  Syrah has yet to recover.  There are two active and effective organizations (The Rhone Rangers and Hospice du Rhone) who are advocating for Grenache.  The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I've spoken with in the last year has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America.  And the market seems increasingly comfortable with both new, unusual grape varieties and with blends, where Grenache shines.

Will Grenache be the next big thing in California?  I'm not sure I would wish that on it.  But will it see success over the coming decades?  I think that's an easy prediction.

The unwelcome implications of another la nina winter for Paso Robles vineyards

One of the benefits of being a member of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is their commissioned agricultural forecast, which we receive each day.  Normally this covers the recent weather and then looks forward both short and medium-term, and it's one of the tools we use to decide what vineyard work (or, during harvest, what harvesting) we're going to look to do next.  But occasionally they send out a special message that looks at a long-term trend of interest.  Earlier this fall, when it became clear that we're going to experience a second consecutive winter driven by a la nina pattern, they distributed a note with the prediction for this winter's temperatures and precipitation. 

La nina patterns happen when the water surface temperatures of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal.  Changes in these ocean temperatures impact weather patterns around the globe.  The note sent to us included predictions for Paso Robles, but also NOAA-prepared maps of the entire United States.  I thought their implications were interesting enough to share.  First, the temperature forecast:


According to the projections, coastal California should be significantly cooler than normal, at least a 40% greater chance of it being cooler than average than it does of it being warmer than average.  During the winter, this doesn't much matter.  We know it can get cold in Paso Robles, and we typically get somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 below-freezing nights each winter.  That we may get an extra dozen frosty nights, or that the nights may bottom out in ther teens rather than the twenties, doesn't matter to dormant grapevines.  But in the spring, cold nights can hurt.  This past winter was a la nina pattern, and we had some of the coldest spring temperatures we've ever seen, including the damaging two-day frosts of April 8th and 9th.

It does not seem that the cooler-than-normal temperatures are confined to the winters, either.  Both the 2010 and 2011 growing seasons were significantly cooler than normal, with degree day readings at Tablas Creek roughly 10% lower than the 10-year average.  And a cooler winter can actually delay budbreak and make the vines less susceptible to spring frosts.  But if you get a warm March, look out.

The precipitation forecast is equally interesting and probably even more important:


In a la nina winter, the northern United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest, gets pummeled by rain.  The south tends to be dry.  Paso Robles is right in the middle, but the timing of the rain in a la nina winter is unusual and tends to be front-loaded in the first few months of the rainy season (November-January).  So while Paso Robles is around its winter-to-date average for rainfall, we'd hope to be above our average with a drier-than-normal late winter likely.

While the impact of la nina on short-term weather patterns is typically ambiguous, what we've seen so far this winter has certainly borne out the predictions.  After some rain on November 20th, we've settled into a three-week-long cold, dry, sunny pattern, with most nights dropping down well into the mid-20s and daytime highs around 60.  Our precipitation this winter (about 4.5 inches so far) is maybe half an inch below average.  And the long-term forecast doesn't suggest a lot of change in store.  We're supposed to see a chance of some showers tonight and tomorrow, but nothing significant.  A similarly meager storm is supposed to arrive at the end of the week.  But the forecast holds little promise of the sorts of big winter storms that we need to replenish surface and ground water, and as we move from early- to mid-winter, we know that our chances of these big storms go down.

With these longer-term forecasts in mind, it seems unlikely that we'll enjoy a third consecutive winter of significant rainfall.  It seems more likely that we may see a recurrence of the spring frosts that have proven our most significant viticultural challenge at Tablas Creek.  I'll be keeping fingers crossed that I'm wrong on both counts.