Off with Their Heads: We Graft our Chardonnay to Counoise and Mourvedre
Stepping out of Beaucastel's Shadow

We check in on the vineyard's progress at the end of May

The end of May marks the end of our danger of frost and the end of any chance of spring rain.  As such, it is a good time to assess where we are.  Short version: things look good, and we're on track for a solid harvest at a reasonably normal time.  For the long version, read on.


We're toward the end of flowering, with even the latest-flowering grapes (like Mourvedre, pictured above) squarely in the middle of the flowering process.  Flowering has taken place under largely ideal conditions; rain, excessive heat, and strong wind can all impact flower fertilization and lead to shatter, the condition where large number of unpollenated berries leave clusters with an uneven, gap-toothed look.  We've had warm but never hot weather, with May's highs reaching the 50's twice, the 60's twice, the 70's and 80's ten times each, and the 90's six times, but only once topping 95, on May 12th.  It doesn't get much more ideal than that.  Our flowering time is about average, and suggests a harvest beginning the first or second week of September.

Looking back into April, we had only one frost night, on April 16th, the morning that Chelsea Franchi took the photos that illustrated her blog The Beauty of Frost Protection. Most of the vineyard had come out of dormancy by mid-April, but our frost protection was largely effective in staving off serious damage.  We estimate that some 10%-15% of the vineyard was affected, and expect to see some impact on yields in those areas.  Happily, that was the only night where we had frost damage this year, and the four nights in which we had to run our frost prevention systems was one of our lowest totals in recent memory.  The grapes most affected were Grenache and Grenache Blanc (typically among the most frost-prone because of their precocious budbreak) which is a blessing in a way, since these grapes are typically among the highest-yielding and typically need aggressive crop thinning anyway.

We finished the winter's rainy season at just under 15 inches, which is just over half of the 28 inches we'd normally expect.  Coming on the heels of a 17-inch rainfall in the winter of 2011-2012 (roughly 60% of normal) we're now firmly into a drought cycle here in Paso Robles.  The vineyard does not appear to be suffering, at least not yet, but we're keeping an eye on the vines' stress levels and may need to turn our our irrigation lines in a systematic way for the first time since 2009.  If we do, we'll be following the pattern we've used in previous droughts: deep watering once or twice early in the growing season, so as not to encourage root growth at the surface but instead to promote growth deeper, where natural reserves of water are more likely to be found in future years. 

As an indication of the level of drought in the area, Las Tablas Creek never ran steadily this winter (the few hours around our December rainstorms notwithstanding) and Lake Nacimiento, into which this area drains, is at just 44% of capacity.  It's disappointing that after such a promising start (we received nearly 12 inches of rain in November and December) the season ended up so far below average. But we're not worried about the drought affecting quality; looking back we've had two multiple-year drought cycles in the last decade, and the second year of the droughts (2003 and 2008) were both excellent vintages, with yields about average. 

Throughout the winter, we have been moving our animal herd from block to block, leaving them in place roughly a week while they chew down the cover crop and fertilize with their manure.  They covered about 40 acres in between December and mid-April, when we had to move them to unplanted areas to protect the new vine growth.  We've been pleased with the health of the vineyard blocks in which the animals have been kept, though we believe that the most powerful impacts will be felt only in the long term.

Sheep in the vineyard April 2013

Over recent weeks we've been concentrating on getting the cover crop that the animals didn't eat -- and the manure, when they did -- disked and spaded into the soil, both to eliminate competition for the available water and to make sure that the nutrient-rich organic matter is mixed in. And the vineyard looks great, vibrantly healthy, with new growth a spring-like yellow green and solid but not enormous crop levels.  We still expect to do some significant crop thinning through the vineyard, but it doesn't look anything like as heavy as 2012's banner year.  A vineyard view, taken yesterday:

Vineyard in the Setting Sun May 2013

In the cellar we've been finishing up the bottling of the 2011 reds and working on the blending of the 2012's, both red and white. One of the last cases of 2011 Esprit rolled off the line yesterday:

Case of 2011 Esprit rolling off bottling line

The 2012 blends look strong, and it's clear that it was a great year for Roussanne, Syrah and Mourvedre.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc includes our highest percentage of Roussanne ever (75%) and is rich and lush, but structured.  The 2012 Esprit, whose percentages aren't quite finalized yet, is going to include lots of Mourvedre and Syrah, both of which were luscious yet with excellent tannic structure, and relatively little Grenache, which was very pretty but less complex.  It will make a wonderful base for a terrific Cotes de Tablas, and we are also planning on about 800 cases of varietal Grenache, which we're excited about, as well as lesser amounts of varietal Syrah (which will be a knockout) and Mourvedre.  For whites, we were so impressed with our Viognier in 2012 that we have decided to bottle it on its own for the first time since 2006.  We're also continuing with varietal Roussanne and Grenache Blanc bottlings, though with the high percentage of Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc, quantities of varietal Roussanne will be low.

Next up for us in the cellar is getting the 2012 blends made and put into foudre or tank. In the vineyard, we'll be completing the shoot thinning process to make sure that the vines are carrying an appropriate quantity of fruit and that we ensure good air flow through and around the ripening clusters. Then we have a bit of a respite before the crush of harvest.  It will be nice to take a deep breath.