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February 2012

A Closer Look at Paso Robles' Microclimates

This morning, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Adelaida Cellars' Terry Culton, Eberle Winery's Ben Mayo, and Victor Hugo Winery's Vic Roberts for an audience of fifteen or so visiting Canadian journalists and members of the Wine Institute.  Our topic was the ageability of Paso Robles wines, and each of us showed a current and an older release of one of our wines.  I'm not sure we met exactly the goal we were set, but I think that an even more interesting discussion unfolded during the seminar.

On the panel, I showed two vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, our Roussanne-based white Rhone blend.  It was followed by two Adelaida Syrahs, two Eberle Cabernet Sauvignons and two Victor Hugo Petite Sirahs.  So far, no big surprises.  All of these varieties are relatively heat-loving, though each benefits in its own way from the good acids and longer hangtimes provided by Paso Robles' cool nights.  But the discussion took an interesting turn when Terry admitted that it was the opportunity to work with the historic HMR Pinot Noir vineyard that brought him to Paso Robles from his position at Pinot Noir mecca Calera.  The journalists, many of whom had never before visited Paso Robles, and who had arrived just the night before so hadn't yet had the chance to explore the AVA, were genuinely amazed that it was possible to grow cool-loving Pinot Noir in proximity to these later-ripening varieties that, in France, need to be grown hundreds of miles to the south.

While the attendees had received a Paso Robles AVA map, we were asked to show on the map how the AVA broke down for climate, soils, and rainfall.  We did the best we could from the front of the room, pointing to the areas that were warmer and cooler, drier and wetter, and more and less calcareous.  But it made me wish for some better tools to show the often remarkable variations within the AVA.  So, I went back to the office today and made some.  They're not perfect, but they're better than anything I could find publicly available, and I thought I'd publish them so they could help others trying to explain the region's microclimates.  All are based on the excellent Paso Robles AVA map developed by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

First, the map with overlays of areas that are warmer and cooler.  We're an unusual coastal valley because our valley does not cut through the nearby coastal range, instead following the Salinas River north-south inside the coast range a hundred miles north to the Monterey Bay.  This means that the direct ocean influence is limited to early mornings when the Monterey Bay fog has had a chance to creep all the way south to us.  This fog typically burns off early in the day and doesn't return until well after midnight.  The most proximate ocean air intrusion comes through the Templeton Gap, where the Santa Lucia Range drops down from about 3000 feet high to around 2000 feet high.  That's still a significant hurdle for marine air to overcome, but many summer days the heat in the interior valleys of California is sufficiently intense to pull that marine air over the range and through the gap.  As the Templeton Gap is in the southwest quadrant of the AVA, it is that area, and to a lesser extent the area in the southeast, that gets the most afternoon cooling.  Our location at Tablas Creek, at the western edge of the AVA, gets less cooling than many areas significantly further east. 

The map below shows a typical afternoon temperature gradient, with cool parts of the AVA noted in blue and warm parts in red.  Note that while areas to the far east of the AVA are indeed quite warm, the principal gradient is just as much north-south as it is east-west.  You can see that Tablas Creek is neither particularly warm nor particularly cool, sheltered from that afternoon incursion of marine air but still at some altitude.  Click on the image below (and the rest of the images) to see them larger.

Paso Robles temperature gradient

Rainfall is a slightly simpler story, but still more complex than most accounts would suggest, having to do with altitude as well as proximity to the ocean.  Areas that are relatively high as well as relatively close to the ocean get the most rain, while lower areas and those farther inland get less.  And the differences can be dramatic.  This past weekend saw the much anticipated arrival of a series of storms which combined to drop 4.87 inches of rain on the weather station at Tablas Creek.  The town of Paso Robles received 1.25 inches, barely one quarter of what we received.  It's not always this dramatic, but our average annual rainfall of 28 inches is almost triple what vineyards on the Estrella River heartland of the Paso Robles AVA can expect.  Another map showing the overlays of the rainfall, with green areas receiving 25 or more inches of rain, brown areas less than 15 inches, and unshaded areas somewhere in between (data for this overlay comes from the Western Region Climate Center):

Paso Robles rainfall gradient

I tend to think that the data, as dramatic as it is, understates my experience of the regional variations in rainfall.  But still, the fact that you can drive 10 miles within the Paso Robles AVA and see rainfalls double (or half) where you started is remarkable.

Finally, the sections of Paso Robles with primarily calcareous soils.  I've written before about the benefits to viticulture of calcareous soils, and it was one of the principal criteria in our initial search for what would become Tablas Creek.  The map below shows the largest blocks of high-calcium soils (in yellow) though there are smaller outcrops in other parts of the AVA due to the complicated folding of soil layers thanks to our active tectonics (for more details on how the soils of our area formed, see my dad's post from last August Why We Are Where We Are).

Paso Robles calcareous overlay

There were three things that we were looking for when we first came up with the idea of a southern-Rhone-inspired project in California.  First was the right kind of climate, with enough heat and a long enough growing season to ripen some exceptionally late-ripening grapes and yet still moderated enough to let the more cool-loving Rhone grapes shine.  Second was enough rainfall to farm without needing to irrigate, which we felt was essential to allowing our grapevines to show a powerful signature of their location.  And third were calcareous soils.  Combining the high-rainfall, calcareous soils and mid-range temperature overlays from the above map produces one region, with Tablas Creek at its heart.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this is Paso Robles' Rhone heartland:

Paso Robles trifecta overlay

We didn't have this data available when we were looking for Tablas Creek; my dad and the Perrins spent their four-year search visiting vineyards, tasting wines, talking to farmers and looking at rocks.  But it's a testament to their perseverance and to their ability to ask the right questions that the data that has become available in the two decades since we bought our property has only served to further convince us that we chose the right place.

One final note: the shaded region above is broadly similar to the proposed Adelaida District in the Paso Robles sub-AVA petition that is undergoing TTB review as we speak.  These new AVA's, when and if they are approved, could be a powerful tool in helping explain to consumers, media and the trade just how a region they know by a single name can have such remarkable diversity inside it.

Anticipating a Long-Awaited Change to Wetter Weather

After what seems like an endless stretch of cold, clear nights and sunny, mild days we're on track for something a little more wintery.  Nearly two months after our last real rain, the forecast predicts a decisive change in the weather pattern later this week.  Three storm systems are lined up off the coast, each expected to drop an inch or more of rain on us.  The details (click to enlarge):

Forecast Jan 2012

As I noted in December, this has been an exceptionally dry stretch during what is normally our wettest portion of the year.  From the end of November, by which time Paso Robles had received 128% of normal year-to-date rainfall, we're now at just 47% of normal.  But these three storms could go a long way to making up the difference.  We're expecting 5 inches or so, based on our history.  Our location at 1500 feet elevation and just 10 miles from the Pacific means that we typically receive something like 50% more than the high range of the forecast estimates for Paso Robles.

Happily, after two wet years in a row, we should be able to withstand a dry winter.  The feel of the soils and the look of the cover crops bear this out; despite the lack of rainfall it's wet just a few inches down.  In low-lying areas, it can be downright soggy.  The construction of our sheep barn, located in fairly deep soils just above Tablas Creek, was a challenge due to the mud.  But even if the vineyard can withstand a year of drought, we'd rather it not have to.  Plus, we need the rain to wash in the compost and the other nutrients we've been spreading on the vineyard.  And as nice as it is to look outside and see the bare vines glowing in the sun, we'd trade it for the sounds of the creek rushing by.  We'll look forward to seeing robin's-egg-blue skies, like the one below taken just a few minutes ago, in February.


How (and Why) to Decant a Wine

One question we get fairly often is whether to decant one of our wines.  My typical answer is that most of our wines will benefit from some air when young, though it's more important for some wines than others.  And a few of our older red wines have started to show some sediment.  Decanting these wines is highly recommended, as even if you stand a bottle up in advance, pouring the wine around the table will re-mix any sediment.  We've started marking on our online vintage chart wines that particularly benefit from decanting.

The examples above illustrate the two different sorts of wines that you might want to decant. The first is what I'm usually asked about: young wines whose powerful structure can be softened, and whose subtler aromatic elements encouraged, by some exposure to air.  It's not actually that important how you decant this sort of wine.  Often, the more the wine splashes around, the better.  But for the second sort of wine -- an older red wine which has accumulated some sediment over time and which you'd like to be able to enjoy without having to strain it through your teeth -- technique is important.

Over the holidays, the Haas clan gathered in Vermont, and we enjoyed many wonderful wines.  Perhaps the highlight was a magnum of the 1989 Hommage a Jacques Perrin that we drank on New Year's Day with a dinner of truffled roast chicken and a gratin of potato and fennel.  The wine was rich and luxurious, powerful with dark red fruit, licorice, and earth.  It was still quite youthful, but had already accumulated significant sediment.  We'd have decanted it even if it were a 750ml bottle, but as magnums are awkward to pour at the table due to their heft, decanting the bottle into two 750ml decanters made the logistics of serving the wine easier.  Robert Haas demonstrates how it was done, step by step.  My sister Rebecca took most of the photos; you can see more of her great photography on her blog Campestral.  The scene, with the bottle having been stood upright two days before:


To start the process, remove the capsule completely so you can see through the neck of the bottle, and light a candle (a small flashlight works, too, but is less focused and less romantic) to shine through the neck so you can tell when the wine flow starts to include sediment:


Then, pull the cork:


Pour out the bottle carefully and gradually, in one smooth motion, with the goal of creating as little turbulence as possible.  The beginning, with the first decanter partly full and the second decanter at the ready:


Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:


If you've poured smoothly enough, the sediment should have collected in the shoulder of the bottle, and you can pour out almost all the liquid without getting any grit.  You can actually see the sediment still in the bottle:




We put the bottle on the table so it could enjoy the dinner too, and so we could read the label if we had any questions: