Previous month:
March 2015
Next month:
May 2015

Photo Essay: Spring in the Vineyard

This spring continues to be benign. After our scare in early April, we've had three weeks of beautiful weather, with lows between 36° and 45°, and highs between 57° and 82°.  The average low has been 39° and the average high 70°: really perfect spring weather.  We've accumulated 207 growing degree days so far, just above our 20-year average of 182, but well below the high of 274, set in 2013.

We haven't gotten much in the way of additional rain.  Despite some promising forecasts for much of last week, we received measurable precipitation only once, on Saturday, and then only 0.02".  But that's OK; rain at this time of year, unless it's significant enough to penetrate deep into the soil, is as much a nuisance as it is a benefit, since it encourages the regrowth of the cover crop that we're spending much of our time trying to bring under control.

The net result has been a beautifully even push from the grapevines of all different varieties.  I was here late in the day yesterday, and got out to take some photos in the late-afternoon light.  These are some of my favorites.  First, a photo of solar power, direct and indirect: a dry-farmed Mourvedre vine, with the solar panels we use to power the winery in the background:

Head-trained mourvedre and solar panels

Not all our varieties are out equally; Grenache (below, top), which is both first to sprout and one of the grapes that makes the most canopy is out quite a bit further than Mourvedre (below, bottom):

New Growth - Grenache

New Growth - Mourvedre

We have flower clusters, and though I wasn't able to find any actual flowering yet, it's surely going to be underway soon.  You can see a similar difference in the size and advancement of the clusters between Grenache (below, top) and Mourvedre (below, bottom). The background for the Mourvedre cluster is one of the solar panels, if you're wondering why it's gray:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre cluster

The cover crop is indeed growing again, thanks to the inch of rain we received on April 7th.  This will mean a second pass through much of the vineyard, at least the parts that we'd mowed rather than disked or spaded:

Grenache hill with regrowing cover crop

Still, this is one of my favorite times of year.  We're largely past the risk of serious frost, particularly since our 10-day forecast doesn't show anything threatening.  It's not hot yet.  The still-green grasses on the hillsides give an overall air of softness that we won't have in a month, and that greenish brown is set against the yellow-green of the newly-leafed out grapevines and oak trees.  Knowing that we're off to an ideal start to the growing season makes it all the sweeter.  

I'll leave you with one last of my favorite photos, from our Scruffy Hill block, which gives you a sense of the landscape: vineyard in front, oak-studded hillsides in the background rising in increasingly rugged folds toward the south and west.  Cheers to spring, and to the incipient 2015 vintage.

Scruffy Hill

Tract Home Guerrilla Winemaking

By Darren Delmore

Delmore Estate Roussanne, Pismo Beach, California

In June 2007 I bought a Tablas Creek Roussanne vine from the tasting room and planted it in my mom’s backyard in Pismo Beach. Her house is in a gated community a block from the chilly Pacific Ocean (Bakersfield Beach AVA?). Because I was a vagabond cellar hand at the time, mom’s house was the only place that the potted plant had any chance of becoming something more than yard waste. I had no idea that I would actually make a bottle of wine from it.

I was amazed to come back for the holidays six months later and see the thing still alive with leaves and everything. Her landscapers weren’t shy on the water and had even put up a little support trellis to keep it upright. I pruned it back Christmas morning with sugary hands, pondering its potential while wearing new flannel pajamas. To ramp up the estate production, I buried two of the cuttings in the ground and supported them at the base with decorative cobblestones à la Beaucastel.

Two summers later I was home for my birthday and was shocked to see the deep green foliage and thickened trunks. Was Pismo Beach the next Châteauneuf-du-Pape of California? These vines were raging! Maybe the rapid growth cycle was because of the proximity to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. I’d heard stories of lemon trees planted in PG&E’s experimental garden spitting out ten-pound balls of citrus. Was this radioactive Roussanne?

“I can’t see out my bathroom window anymore,” my mom complained beside the plant that was double her size. I hedged the vines back and noticed a cluster count of about 25 on the mother vine, and five on each of the prunings. 

“We are going to have a vintage,” I declared.

“What grapes are these again?” Mom asked me for the tenth time.

“I should’ve planted Pinot Grigio,” I thought to myself.

The task of making wine is such a romantic mystery that most people don’t realize that you really can make a bottle or two of wine in your backyard. Whether or not it’s worth the arduous task or non-lethal to drink the results is another story. I decided to rise to the occasion, so I bought bird-resistant netting from Home Depot, wrapped all three vines in the black mesh, and even tossed a scarecrow out there for good measure. Her landscapers cut the water supply upon request to induce a little stress. In October I brought out my refractometer (which measures sugar density through a scope like device) and saw that the grapes were close, but needed more ripening time. By Halloween the leaves were yellowing out and showing off some rust markings, the fruit looked and tasted sweet, and the seeds had mostly turned from green to brown. I rechecked the grapes and saw that the sugars were on the money, so I got out the clippers, ripped off the netting, and harvested a 5 gallon paint bucket’s worth of clusters.

The hard and ridiculous part of all of this is hand pressing. There are some home winemakers that have made contraptions to expedite this part, but I stubbornly put my lower back to the test and crushed down the fruit with my palm, hoisted up the bucket, then poured off the developing juice through a pasta screen and funnel into a Carlo Rossi gallon jug (Don’t ask).

The setup, complete with a tea kettle full of boiling water to sanitize things.

I repeated the task with sweat and profanity flowing until the jug was mostly full. Calling it quits, I sealed the jug with a plastic air lock that homebrew shops sell (they keep out fruit flies and oxygen, but also allow  CO2 from fermentation to release so things don’t explode). Since Tablas Creek does wild yeast fermentations, I followed suit and didn’t add any store bought yeast to the juice. I kept my miniature vessel in the closet of the bedroom I was renting in San Luis Obispo. A few nights later I heard a new sound.


The beast was alive.

There was an inch of white globby sediment at the bottom, a visible crust on top, and a bakery smell in the room, all from this micro production.

About a week later the bubbling noises stopped and my room smelled like less of a compost pile. I bravely ventured a sample of the wine. Though the gas-heavy bouquet seared my septum, the taste was actually Rhône-like and finished dry on the palate. Since there was headspace in the jug that would lead to oxidation, I poured the clear top wine into a 1/2 gallon beer growler, sealed it with the air lock and stashed the wine in the closet for a couple months.

Before embarking to Australia in February 2010, I hand bottled, corked, and labeled a single bottle of the wine for my mom, and gave it to her in advance to drink on Mother’s Day since I'd be gone.  

Cut to May: I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day from a payphone in New South Wales. “So, did you drink the wine?” I eagerly asked.

“I had it with Barbara last night,” she confirmed before a heavy pause.

“And… so what did you think?”

“She liked it. For me, it was… different.”


“Well... I'm not sure. What grape was it again?”

I immediately hung up the phone.

Darren Delmore has been Tablas Creek's National Sales Manager since 2012.

State of the Vineyard, mid-April Edition

Ten days ago, I was convinced that we were going to get clobbered by frost in the aftermath of a cold, wet Pacific storm.  All the conditions were in place: an early budbreak, a weather pattern shift, and a powerful late-season cold front with origins in Alaska that was heading unusually far south for April.

And yet we made it through.  It dropped into the low- to mid-30s eight of the first ten days of April (after seeing no nighttime lows below 38° in the second half of March) but our lowest measured low was 32.3° at the weather station in the middle of the vineyard.  Why did we survive what the forecast called "an exceptionally cool air mass overhead"?  We had just enough cloud cover the two nights after the storm came through (daytime highs 59° and 56°) to keep radiational cooling to a minimum, and by the time it cleared up, the air mass had warmed enough (daytime highs 67° and 70°) to keep our nighttime lows just above the freezing mark.

As a bonus, we got nearly an inch of rain, when every bit of rainfall we receive is welcome.  0.92" of rainfall doesn't sound like much, but over our 120 acres, the total volume is staggering: 2,997,829 gallons of water.  Not enough to make a dent in our drought, but it does give us that much more confidence (and we were already feeling pretty good) that our vineyard is well set up to make it through this year's harvest.

And things look great out there right now.  Every variety has come out of dormancy, and with less variation than normal.  We often have to wait nearly a month between when Grenache and Viognier sprout and when we see the beginning of growth in our late-budding Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne grapes.  But this year, the evenness across the vineyard, both between varieties and within blocks of single varieties, is noteworthy.  A few photos will give you an idea.  First, from the middle of our Grenache block, with Roussanne in the background:

Grenache and Roussanne blocks

A close-up of one of the cordons in our old Grenache block shows how far out things are: several inches, with tiny flower clusters already showing.

Grenache cordon

The clusters themselves are beautifully formed, and Viticulturist Levi Glenn thinks we may see our first flowering as early as May 1st:

New Grenache clusters

The main work now is getting the cover crop (both what we planted and the wild grasses that seed themselves) under control, so we protect the vines from competition for water.  A look through our Mourvedre block shows the new green growth in the middle of the vine rows, for which we can thank last week's rain, as well as the higher grasses growing amongst the vines themselves.  This shows the one downside of this late rain; we will have to re-mow or re-disk many of the blocks we thought we'd cleaned up already:

Mourvedre row

Many blocks, though, are still unmowed, and we're enjoying the last of what has been a spectacular wildflower season.  The purple flowers of our vetch plants are predominating:

Row with wildflowers

We're making sure to enjoy the flowers now, because the next few weeks will see this wild scene turn into something much more manicured, as our mower, disker, and spader turn the green at the surface into delicious organic soil for our grapevines:

Row newly mowed

We're still not out of the woods for frost; Paso Robles can freeze as late as mid-May.  But we've survived four dangerous weeks so far, and the ten-day forecast looks OK.  If we can get into May without any damage, we'll be able to relax somewhat.  So far, so good.

The Rare Time When a Rainy Forecast is Unwelcome

Overall, we've had a warm spring.  In an environment where winter freezes are normal perhaps one third of the nights between December and February, we saw just four below-freezing lows in January and three in February.  March saw only one night drop below freezing at our weather station, and that was March 1st.  Since March 10th, we've only seen four nights drop into the 30's, none below 38°.  The result of all this mild weather has been an early budbreak.

It has been dry, too.  Happily, November and December got us off to a good start on our winter rain, but January (0.23 inches total) and March (0.02 inches total) were very dry, and February (3.92 inches) only average.  So far for the winter, we've tallied a little over 13 inches of rainfall, which is better than the last few years, but still only about 60% of normal.

So, you'd think that today's forecast, which calls for a series of troughs to dig down south into California and bring likely precipitation next week to our area, would be welcome (image from the US Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center):

April 2015 rain forecast

You'd be wrong.

Not all rainfall in April is bad.  Last year, we got about an inch and a half of rain right at this time of year for which we were grateful.  It came as part of a tropical system that raised humidity levels and dew points, from the south Pacific, not from the Pacific Northwest.  Next week's forecast storms are going to be much colder, sliding down from Alaska and bringing with them a much colder air mass aloft.  We should be fine while there is cloud cover, but it is in the aftermath of April storm systems like these that we've seen damaging frosts in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  Those 2011 storms were so cold that they produced hail and snow at the vineyard during the day:


The cold April nights that followed (both April 8th and April 9th, 2011 got down into the low 20s) cost us, we estimate, something like 40% of our crop from the 2011 vintage.  And we had later budbreak that year; Mourvedre and Roussanne were relatively unaffected because they were still mostly dormant.  A similar event this year, with even our late-sprouting Mourvedre out around the property, would be devastating.

We're still hopeful that we won't see significant damage this year.  The air mass in that 2011 storm was so cold that even at the tops of our hills were several degrees below freezing.  That's rare.  No one is yet talking about a cataclysm.  And there are still several days before these systems arrive, and if this spring has taught us anything, it's to be skeptical of long-term forecasts that predict rain.  But we've been lucky the last two years to avoid frost entirely despite our earliest-ever budbreaks.  With the increasing agreement about these storms among different weather modeling systems, it seems like we'll face our first real test of the year.

Fingers crossed, please, everyone.