In his blog this week, the Wine Spectator's Tim Fish reports that regions as diverse as Contra Costa, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Maria Valley are already seeing veraison: the point at which red grapes start turning color, and all grapes stop growing in size and turn to accumulating sugar. [For a good overview of the science behind veraison, check out this blog piece from 2007.] Since veraison typically means harvest is six weeks away, this news is pretty stunning. Harvest in early August? In coastal California?
I was quoted in the article, that we hadn't seen veraison here and didn't think we were that close, although we do expect an early start to harvest more or less in line with last year's late August beginning. Saxum's Justin Smith, just down the street from us, was even more surprised, commenting, "Whoa, are you serious?" I really didn't think we were that close, so I decided to go out and get representative photographs of each of our grapes, to check in on their progress. What I saw reinforced my belief that we're on a more or less normal trajectory: on the early side, like 2013, but nothing hugely different. I'll share the photos I got, and then explain my thoughts on why I think we're not seeing some of the very early ripening of some of our neighboring regions.
First, the whites, beginning with Viognier (left) and Marsanne (right):
Then, Roussanne (left) and Grenache Blanc (right):
Next, the reds, starting with Grenache (left) and Counoise (right):
And finally, Mourvedre:
Even the earliest-to-ripen grapes like Syrah and Viognier are showing pea-sized berries, not yet even fully round, still bright green and seemingly a long way away from turning red. In last year's blog piece on veraison, I went back to 2007 and found our first signs of veraison over the last seven years had ranged from July 17th (2013) to August 5th (2011), with an average date of July 25th. Will this year threaten last year's earliest-ever veraison? Perhaps. But that's still a month away, and I'm not expecting to see it much before then.
Why would we in Paso Robles, which people typically think of as a warm region, be seeing veraison so much later than "cool" regions like Santa Maria and Santa Lucia Highlands? The hint to the answer is in investigating what those two regions have in common with Contra Costa, but not with us: a relative lack of below-freezing temperatures. All three regions are relatively open to the Pacific, and are therefore moderated by the ocean's unchanging cool -- never cold, and never warm -- water. Although our vineyard sits only ten miles from the Pacific, Paso Robles is not coastal in that way. The southern end of the Santa Lucia Mountains sits solidly to our west, unbroken at about 3000 feet. This barrier keeps out most of the moderating influence of the Pacific, and allows us both to cool down and heat up more than the aforementioned regions. In the summer, this gives us warm to hot days and cool to cold nights, often with a swing of 45 degrees or more. In the winter, we see a swing nearly as large, with days in the 60's and 70's, and regular freezes at night.
These freezes are often a risk, as we can be damaged by frost as late as mid-May. Happily, we escaped this year. But in the late winter or early spring, a frost can have the useful impact of delaying budbreak and the onset of the ripening cycle, while more moderate regions can actually get an earlier start. Typically, the difference between these regions isn't huge: a matter of a few weeks. But this year, when we barely got below freezing after a cold December, the more moderate regions didn't at all. How close were we to a similarly early start? I'd point to the nights of February 4th and 5th, both of which got down to 29 degrees here. That doesn't sound like much, but it meant that even with the warm weather that followed, our budbreak didn't start until mid-March. The more coastal regions didn't get a frost after December, and I remember driving through the Santa Maria Valley in the second half of February and marveling that their vines were already showing green.
What will the impact be on the quality of the wines this year? It's unclear. Typically, you'd like your vines to have as long a ripening cycle as they can, but there's little evidence to suggest whether it's better or worse for things to start (and end) later than it is for them to start (and end) earlier. I'm not sure it will have a big impact. It is nice harvesting when it's cool, as it gives the grapes some protection against oxidation on their trip from vine to winery, and this cool is more likely in October than August. So, to that extent, I'm happy we're not exceptionally early. But in any case, I'm grateful enough that we got through our early spring without any frost damage -- and received March's generous rainfall -- that I'll take a slightly early veraison in stride.