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February 2014
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April 2014

Photo of the day: No ice bucket required

I got back yesterday evening from a wonderful weekend in Lake Tahoe: a benefit for the 49ers Foundation, which distributes millions of dollars each year to help keep kids in the Bay Area on track.  The event (called the 49ers Foundation Winter Fest) included wine tasting, silent and live auctions, a program of events with 49ers players, coaches and alumni for kids and adults and free run of the facilities at the beautiful Resort at Squaw Creek.

We poured wine at our reception and donated to the dinner and auction, which were great.  But more than that, we'll remember the interactions with the players and coaches, all of whom were notably kind to and patient with the kids.  And the snow.  After a clear day Friday and a rainy morning Saturday, snow levels dropped to us around 4pm on Saturday, and over the next twelve hours we got over a foot of snow.  I grew up in Vermont, where a foot of snow wasn't particularly memorable, but for our kids, who are growing up in California, it was something else entirely.  I'm still not sure their clothes have dried, they were so packed with snow.

Since snow here is so rare, and we'd brought a bottle of our new 2013 Dianthus (it is spring, after all) I played a bit with the juxtaposition of winter and spring, warm and cold, blue-white snow and bright pink wine.  I got several photos I liked, but this was my favorite.  No ice bucket required:

Dianthus in the snow

Happy spring, wherever you are, and whatever the weather looks like in your neck of the woods.

Photo Essay: The first vineyard hike of spring

By Lauren Cross

I couldn't resist hiking through the vineyard today. The sun was warm and bright, there was a slight breeze and the floral smells of spring were intoxicating. The first day of spring is a turning point for the vineyard, a definite end of dormancy, and I wanted to see what new life I could find out there.

First stop, I made a bee-line for the chicken coop where our new baby chicks had just arrived; we got five more this morning!  This little gal was so fluffy, soft and very curious.


Just around the corner from the chicks' temporary home is their soon-to-be fully automated and portable chicken coop.  If you missed our Facebook post from earlier this week, Viticulturist Levi Glenn is transforming a reclaimed outhouse into a fully-functioning coop for these little gals.  I love the idea of reclaimed materials transformed with modern technology. Of course, the chickens are examples of recycling as well.  They eat the weeds, seeds and insects and produce nitrogen for the vineyard.

Check out the windows!


Then I headed up the hill to see how the lambs, sheep, alpacas and donkeys were doing.  I am always surprised by how quickly these little ones grow up.  Can you believe this lamb was born only a few months ago?  Of course, they're not there to be decorative.  It was good to see them hard at work turning our cover crop into fertilizer, and great to see the fast-growing greenery. We are most thankful for those few late storms!


Then I headed down to see the fruit trees, another part of our biodynamic program.  Biodiversity is a central tenet of biodynamics, so in addition to our chickens, sheep, donkeys, goats, pipgs, alpacas and llamas we also have interplanted fruit trees in our newer vineyard blocks.  Each different tree attracts a slightly different mix of insects and birds, and results in a more vibrant underground ecosystem.

I just so happened to find a very large pig free-ranging around the orchard.


That big guy came right up to me and nuzzled my leg with its huge snout. Cute, but also a bit intimidating.

The best part about the first day of spring for me is the beginning of my favorite season: rosé season! Somehow, rosés only look right outside.  Please welcome the 2013 Dianthus:


Come visit us in the tasting room and take a tour to taste the Dianthus and see spring in the vineyard for yourself: tours run daily at 10:30am and 2pm. Call 805.237.1231 and we'll set you up.

Happy first day of spring, everyone.


Why we're dreading the 2014 frost season

Last week, we saw budbreak in our Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Viognier blocks.  This week, it's been joined by most of the other grapes, with only Roussanne and Mourvedre still fully dormant.  It won't be more than another week or two before they look like the Grenache below, photographed this morning:


Back in 2008, I wrote the blog post Budbreak is terrifying, but hopeful in which I talked about the combination of anticipation and fear that comes with the early beginning to a new growing season.  The anticipation should be obvious: it's the kickoff to the vintage, a time when the dormant vines spring to life and grow visibly day by day.  The fear comes because we rarely make it through April without some sort of a frost, and nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing as late as mid-May.

In an ideal world, we'd see frosty nights reguarly through mid-March, well interspersed with winter storms.  Sun between these storms is fine, as long as it drops below freezing a couple of times per week.  Then come the end of March, we'd see the season transition to sunny and mild, leading to budbreak some three weeks later and leaving us only a few weeks of high frost danger.  If it sounds like wishful thinking, it largely is, though what I outlined fits the pattern of the 2012 vintage pretty well.

If 2012 sits at one end of the spectrum -- I wrote about budbreak on April 17th -- this year sits at the other end.  This winter started off cold and dry but beginning in January we saw nearly two months of sun and warmth. Since January 1st we've only seen four nights drop below freezing, most recently the nights of February 4th and 5th, neither of which were frigid, dropping down only to 29 degrees.  Then, starting February 24th, we saw twelve consecutive days with lows bottoming out in the 40's and 50's, dropping only once in that stretch into the (high) 30's.  What does a month of non-freezing weather, capped by nearly two weeks of active warmth and ample sun tell the grapevines?  That spring has arrived, and it's time to get moving.

Looking back at the records I can find, this is the earliest we've been talking about budbreak.  Last year we reached the stage we're at now the first week of April.  2012 was late, as detailed above.  2011 saw budbreak the first week of April (and we got clobbered by consecutive nights in the low-20's the next week). 2010 was the last week of March. We should have been safe in 2009, with budbreak not until the second week of April, but we got hit hard by frosts April 25th and 26th. 2008 was the last week of March. 2007 was early April, delayed by our coldest winter on record.  So, in the last eight years, we're roughly ten days earlier than the next-earliest budbreak, and two and a half weeks earlier than average.

What do those two and a half weeks mean?  A very small chance of avoiding frost entirely, given that we've got two full months having to get lucky every night.  And a significantly increased risk of serious frost damage, given that we've got nearly six weeks when temperatures could drop into the mid-20's.

There are positive examples to look to, most notably 2010, which saw a late-March budbreak followed by six weeks of non-freezing weather.  But I think there is a greater chance of us seeing significant damage from frost than there is of us escaping unscathed.  And unlike in 2009 and 2011, when Roussanne and Mourvedre were still largely dormant at the time of our serious frosts, we're unlikely to have our most-planted and most important grapes dodge this year's bullet.

2014 was the first year we've ever bought crop insurance, spurred by the drought.  Though the drought still looms, our late-February/early March rain has mitigated those fears somewhat.  Now we turn our worries to two full months of frost risk.  Here's rooting for the insurance company.

Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, Decanter's 2014 Men of the Year

By Robert Haas

Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and François Perrin, "Men of the Year" in the current issue of the venerable English wine magazine Decanter.  I cannot think of any French wine family with better credentials.  We love them.

Perrins men of the year

My first encounter with the Perrin family was with Jacques in 1967.  It was during my short (1967-1970) period at Barton Distilling trying to create a wine division.  I was there to buy bulk Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine to be shipped to a négociant bottler in Bordeaux.  Barton had the idea of creating a line of French AOC wines under the André Simon brand for which they had the rights.  The whole thing eventually fell apart. The execution failed because, among other things, Barton's barons in the field didn’t dig anything under 80 proof.  Recognizing the futility of trying to create a wine division at Barton, I resigned in 1970 and went on to form Vineyard Brands shortly thereafter, taking all my suppliers with me.

Jacques and I had hit it off together.  He took me under his wing and showed me around other wineries and cooperatives in the Vaucluse to emphasize how far there was still to go in producing quality wines in the Côtes du Rhône.  I admired Jacques’ openness and the frank discussions with his family that took place around the dinner table.  I returned to Beaucastel in 1968, 1969, and 1970 to ask for U.S. representation of the domain because I thought it unique in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in its use of high percentages of Mourvèdre and Roussanne in its blends and because it was inaugurating organic farming in its vineyard.  I finally achieved success in 1970 and became importer for Château de Beaucastel.  That was the beginning of the deep family relationships that followed. 

In 1971 Jacques introduced me to his son Jean-Pierre, who had graduated from oenology school in Dijon and had started a small négoce in Jonquières with the brand La Vieille Ferme Côtes-du-Rhône.  We imported the first ever export (100 cases 1970 vintage) and sold it to Sherry-Lehmann in New York.  Today it is an international brand selling cases in the seven figures.

Jean-Pierre and I became friendly.  We had kids of similar ages and we visited back and forth as families.  Vineyard Brands started representing the early “boutique” Napa wineries, Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, and Phelps in the early 1970’s.  Jean-Pierre accompanied me to Napa on one of my supplier visiting trips and was impressed by the amount of activity (“even the streets are made out of stainless”) and surprised that there were no Rhône varieties being grown even though the climate was more Mediterranean than Bordeaux or Burgundy (think chardonnay).  It was at that point that the germ of the idea of “doing something together” in California came to us.  It was not until 1985, however, that we started to act on it.

Vineyard Brands continued as importer for Château de Beaucastel and François came on the scene just before Jacques’ tragic early death from cancer in 1977.  Thereafter, all three families became good friends, frequent visitors, and business partners.

In 1985 Jean-Pierre, François and I decided to “do something” in California.  We started looking for property to start a vineyard and winery partnership.  We looked for high pH soils and a southern Rhône climate.  After scouring the state for five years looking and tasting, we came upon the then practically unknown Paso Robles area on west side of highway 101, the Las Tablas district, in which we found a 120 acre piece laced with calcareous clay soils and we bought it jointly.

In our travels around looking for property we discovered that there were no reliable cultivars for Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Roussanne, Counoise, and Grenache Blanc, the principal varieties that we planned to plant, so François arranged for supply of cuttings with his nurseryman in France.  The California USDA station for reception, quarantine, testing for viruses, and clearance was closed in 1990.  The USDA station in Geneva, NY accommodated us instead.  The vines cleared in 1993 and were shipped to California and multiplied and grafted in our own nursery.  Planting began in 1995.  We have continued importing cuttings from Beaucastel recently, bringing in the balance of the 13 Châteauneuf-du Pape varieties through USDA Davis and will make all available to US growers as we have in the past.  Ironically, the Foundation Plant Service in Davis will be the only facility in the world able to supply virus free all 13 (14 if you count Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir separately) accepted varieties of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.

The availability of authentic vine material from our collection and the attention drawn to the Rhône idea by our partnership led to a wave of plantings by new wineries focused on Rhône blends, which in turn led to a new focus for the new Paso Robles community of adventurous growers, which in turn led to over 600 American wineries that planted, promoted, and marketed Rhône variety blends.

From the beginning our farming and style of wine making, were inspired by the Beaucastel model: organic farming going to biodynamic and wines with power, but with elegance and a respect for our terroir.  Contrary to most current California practices, all reds and some whites are vinified and aged for the most part in large (45 to 65 hecto) French oak.  We ferment with native yeasts to maintain our feeling of place.

Our wine maker, Neil Collins, spent the year of 1997 at Beaucastel.  Early on Jean-Pierre was the most frequent Perrin to be involved in the decision making, with François being involved in the blending and the vineyard most recently.  Jean-Pierre’s son, Pierre spent the year here in 2001, working in the cellar and son Marc is also involved, and François’ son César has been working in the cellar this last year. The style of wine making, as at Beaucastel, is classic, not trendy modern.

We are proud to be an important part of the Perrins' world adventures.  Without them Tablas Creek Vineyard never would have happened.

After our recent rain, reassessing California's drought

Since last Wednesday, we've received 5.71 inches of glorious rain.  It was nicely spread out, starting with two inches the first day, followed by thirteen hundredths the next, then another two inches Friday, another inch Saturday, and finally a half-inch yesterday.  That meant it nearly all soaked in, rather than ran off.  Essentially, it was just what the doctor ordered. 

For those of you keeping score, the last week more than doubled our rainfall for the 2013-2014 winter.  We've now topped 8 inches and are at about 40% of normal for this date... a much better-looking figure than the 15% of normal we were at a week ago.

And the landscape has been transformed even over the last week.  The palette of hard, dry grey-browns has been replaced by softer outlines and lush greens, ethereal in the softer light filtered through air with moisture in it.  From this morning, looking south from the top of the vineyard:

Mar 02 View over vineyard

And looking north from roughly the same spot:

Mar 02 View down through Marsanne 2

Of course, these landscapes are more like what we'd normally expect to see in December than those we typically see in March.  Compare the above photos, taken this morning, with the below one, taken last March 6th:

2013 March 6th

We expect the cover crops to explode into rapid growth, now that they have had some rain. So, within a month or so, it will likely be hard to tell that the rainy season started so late this year. But start late, it did.

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, we're now much happier about the prospects for a healthy vineyard for the 2014 growing season.  We've been able to stop supplementing with drip irrigation, and to get back to focusing on pruning for the upcoming season.  But because the soils were so dry, and absorbed the water so efficiently, the rain didn't do much to replenish the many ponds, lakes and reservoirs in the area. The percentage of capacity at our two local reservoirs barely budged over the last week, with Lake Nacimiento's level increasing 33 inches (from 21% capacity to 23% capacity) and Lake San Antonio's level increasing just 5 inches, remaining at 5% capacity.  And most smaller ponds and reservoirs showed little more improvement.  Las Tablas Creek, after five days of rain, was still dry this morning, without even a trickle running:

Mar 02 View of Las Tablas Creek

If the surface ponds and lakes showed so little improvement from the rain, the ground water is likely to be even less affected.  On the positive side, most vineyards won't need to draw as much on their wells and reservoirs, for a month or two at least, which should allow them to recover somewhat.  But in order to make a significant impact on the drought-writ-large, we'd likely need three or four more storms like the one we saw last week. While we can still expect some precipitation until the end of April, catching up even to an average year is not likely.

And here's where we see one other benefit of the largely dry-farmed vineyard we've developed over the last two decades.  The vines are trained to be self-sufficient, and will benefit more from the new water that is now being stored in the bedrock than vines whose root systems have been trained to look for water near the surface, under their drip lines.  So, they'll look where there's water, while vineyards who rely on irrigation will be forced to draw on underground sources that didn't see much help from the storm.

In better news for California, areas around and north of the Bay Area not only got a good soaking from this storm, but got significant rainfall (5-12 inches) the week of February 3rd and look like they'll continue to get significant rainfall this week from a plume of tropical moisture that stretches across the pacific from Hawaii to northern California. The North Coast is likely to be above 50% of normal year-to-date rainfall after this week, and snow accumulations in the Sierra Nevada are, while still low, not as critically low as they were a month ago.

So, while no one in California is declaring victory over our drought, and while it seems that the local stresses on our water supplies are unlikely to be much ameliorated -- let alone solved -- by this storm, we're now feeling at least OK about our prospects for getting our vines through the ripening cycle without them running out of water, and it seems that California's drought has gone from critical to severe.  And that's something to celebrate.