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September 2018
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November 2018

Harvest 2018 Recap: A Vintage Concentrated in both Time and Character

Last Thursday, we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise.  It wasn't as though there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat, or anything else. No, it was just that the grapes were ready. That made it a fitting end to the 2018 harvest, which unfolded under the best conditions I can remember in my 18 years here. No wonder our cellar crew was all smiles:

End of Harvest Lunch

Unlike many years, where the harvest comes in waves, 2018 was the harvest that never needed to hit the pause button.  From the first serious pick on September 10th, we picked nearly every day until we reached the 85% mark in mid-October. After giving ourselves a long weekend without picking to let the last few blocks finish ripening, we started right back up and picked steadily until we were done on October 25th. You can see steady workflow in the chart below.  It's not quite the classic bell curve, but it's as close as I ever remember seeing, at least on the estate side (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit):

Harvest Chart through October 28th

Yields were slightly above average, although the picture varies quite a bit depending on the variety you focus on. Grenache, for example, had one of our best years ever in terms of yields, but Roussanne was down quite a bit. Overall, our yields were off somewhat from the near-record 3.6 tons/acre we saw in the 2017 vintage that had been fueled by the previous winter's near-record rainfall. The complete picture:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Vermentino 17.9 22.2 -19.4%
Roussanne 32.6* 41.7 -21.8%
Total Whites 133.2 152.7 -12.8%
Grenache 74.3 73.1 +1.6%
Syrah 44.7 41.5 +7.7%
Mourvedre 64.4 72.9 -11.7%
Tannat 19.8 20.5 -3.4%
Counoise 16.0 18.8 -14.9%
Total Reds 219.2 226.8 -3.4%
Total 352.4  379.5 -7.1%

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there is still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses for our Vin de Paille program, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. 

Overall yields ended up at 3.32 tons per acre, about 10% above our ten-year average.  We only have two other years in our history in which we've seen yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre, which was a little surprising to me, given that this is both our target and our long-term average. But it's worth remembering that the data set includes a number of years just above 3.5 tons/acre (like 2005, 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2017 when ample rainfall combined with excellent growing conditions) as well as vintages reduced by drought to between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre (including 2003, 2004, 2013, 2014, and 2016) and those reduced by frost or shatter to levels around 2 tons per acre (2009, 2011, and 2015).  So, that suggests a narrative for 2018, which joins the 2007 and 2008 vintages in what we think of as a sweet spot: years that show evidence of solid vigor from the vineyard, likely from residual moisture and vine health from recent wet winters, but still reduced somewhat by water stress. Given that last winter was dry but not at crisis levels, and that it followed the ample rainfall in early 2017, this makes sense to me.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62

You'll note that 2018's sugars maintained the rebound we saw last year (after lower average sugars in 2015 and 2016) while the average pH declined to something close to our long-term average. Those are both good signs: that the vines were healthy enough to achieve the sugar concentrations we wanted while maintaining their acids later in the season.  The decline in pH from 3.74 to 3.62 might not seem like much, but remember that pH is a logarithmic scale, so this year's grapes contained nearly 32% more acid than last year's.  We're excited about that, and feel that the better acids are a sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vines were under at harvest time.

Looking back at the degree days that we measured this 2018 growing season provides confirmation for what we felt on the ground: most of the year has been moderate to slightly cool, except for the scorching 6-week stretch between the second week of July and the middle of August. July was our hottest month ever, and August warmer than normal thanks to the first half of the month, but the rest of the year was not. So, while the overall picture suggests a warm year, with about 7% more degree days than average, it's important to remember when and how the heat came, and just as importantly, when it didn't. The chart below shows the cooler spring (1% fewer degree days than normal) and harvest (1.5% fewer degree days than normal) surrounding the hot mid-summer (20% more degree days than average). Note that October's information is for the first 25 days, as we picked our last block on October 25th:

2018 Degree Days by Month

We picked 115 lots this year, with one more (the Roussanne that's a part of the Vin de Paille) still to come.  And we had just enough space on our harvest chalkboard!

Completed Harvest Chalkboard 2018

The duration of harvest -- 55 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium, and one day longer than 2017. But that raw number too is deceptive, given that the first 10 days of harvest saw us bring in just 10 tons of grapes. The next 45 days saw the remaining 527 tons, so it felt like a shorter, more compact harvest than 2017. If we consider September 10th our first "real" harvest day, that puts the duration at our second-shortest of the last 15 years, longer only than the 2013 vintage that was conducted almost entirely in temperatures around 90 degrees and which finished on October 7th.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage based on her tastings, and her response was, "I think it's going to be a really strong year for reds; the Mourvedre and Counoise are coloring up fast, which is usually an indicator of a good vintage, and the flavors are powerful and deep. And the whites are insanely aromatic and floral."  Given that Chelsea has been running on 60-hour weeks for the last two months, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2018 is to make our first Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Roussanne clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 38° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Roussanne we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation next week. 

Roussanne on the straw

Although harvest is over, there's still plenty of work to do in the cellar; because we were harvesting pretty steadily up until the end, we have plenty of tanks still fermenting and on their skins. It's important to remember, should you see a winemaker emerging from his or her work-imposed exile in the next few weeks, that November is still a busy month for cellar work. Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver got a great shot of a Grenache tank she was digging out late last week. Automated, this is not.

Amanda digging out Grenache

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast until the second week of November, and even that's uncertain. But whenever it comes, we'll be ready. And as for those "harvest hands"? December can't come soon enough.

Harvest Hand


Compost: Momma Nature’s Gift (A Step by Step Guide)

By Jordan Lonborg

Biodynamics has lots of facets, including applications of minerals, planting of flora, integration of fauna, and even reacting to celestial stimuli. But one of its most important components is one of the oldest, and one of the most practical for the home organic gardener. What is this magical tool? Compost, of course.

What, where, and how do you compost? I'm happy you asked. Essentially, when you compost, you are encouraging a natural process, and then using the beneficial byproduct of what in the wild would be a part of the yearly cycle of growth and decay that takes place in every stand of trees, every forest, and most of all, every jungle on the planet. Simply put, compost is the biodegradation, or breakdown, of plant material that falls to the ground in the form of leaves, fruit, branches etc. The second that material hits the ground, the breakdown begins. This food chain is often invisible, and frequently smelly, but without it, there is no life on this planet. Small insects and microorganisms begin to feed on the litter. As the litter is continuously broken down by various organisms -- insects that you can see with the naked eye, all the way to microscopic bacteria -- nutrient rich humus (not the cracker spread) is excreted. As the humus accumulates, beneficial bacteria and fungi begin to grow. These bacteria and fungi work in symbiosis with the root structures of living plants, allowing those plants to take in the nutrients that are contained in the humus.

Jordy compost closeupA closeup of our compost, with Mycelium, a white vegetative part of a fungus crucial for our compost teas

In a farm setting, where we try to recreate this natural process, there are many ways and forms of composting. At Tablas Creek, we utilize the process commonly known as wind row composting (long rows that are typically 7-8 ft. wide and 5-6 feet tall). When starting the pile, there are a few crucial steps/measures that need to be taken to create a biologically active environment. First and foremost is the carbon (dry, woody material) to nitrogen (“green” material or plant material that still has moisture within it such as pressed grapes or the rachis/stems of the cluster’s that had recently gone through one of the first steps in the winemaking process known as de-stemming). Ideally, this ratio should be 3:1, carbon to nitrogen. Our carbon source comes from all of the prunings collected from across the ranch. We put these through a chipper and add walnut tree wood chips from piles we kept after clearing the old walnut trees from the part of the property known as “Jewel Ridge” (this will eventually be our next dry farmed planting).

Jordy with compostHappy compost makes for a happy Viticulturist!

The carbon sources are collected and piled up throughout the winter months. During harvest is when the magic happens. As grapes are pressed and de-stemmed, we begin to incorporate the skins and rachis into the piles of woody material. The breakdown of the woody material and formation of humus begins at this point. When the green material starts to decompose, heat and moisture start to release, and microorganisms that feed on the woody material begin to feed and populate. At this point, it is crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile. The ideal internal temperature of a pile that is actively composting is 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. When green material is incorporated into the pile in the beginning stages, decomposition of the green material can occur so quickly that temperatures within the pile can skyrocket. When a compost pile experiences prolonged temperatures of 170 degrees and above, anaerobic (oxygen deprived) conditions begin to form, which both suppresses the growth of of beneficial microorganism and allows other non-beneficial microorganisms to take their place. To prevent this from happening, we “turn” the pile.

Turning our compost pile has become what Neil Collins, Tablas Creek's most esteemed (OK, he's the only winemaker since inception), termed an “obsession” of mine. He is correct. Taking a 20” thermometer and inserting into a pile that is 8’ wide, 6’ tall, and 50 yards long, at this point in the year and reading temperatures that exceed 170-180 degrees absolutely blows my mind. Therefore, to encourage the beneficial microbiological activity within the pile, and with hopes of trying to get the temperature to stabilize at 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun is coming up I hop in the loader, and begin to move the pile, scoop by scoop to an adjacent location. This process incorporates oxygen, decreases the temperature, and disrupts and any anaerobic activity that may be beginning to occur. It’s an amazing sensation when you start getting into the heart of this pile that is creating ridiculous amounts of heat, steam, and smells during cold mornings at sunrise. The aerobic, properly composting sections of the pile smell amazing. Like earthy, mulled cider to an extent. When you hit the anaerobic areas, they also smell amazing but would be considered more of a stench than anything. I’m still working on a descriptor, but think of a hot swamp. No bueno. During this point in the year/composting process, we turn the pile every 2-3 days. In time, the temperatures begin to stabilize and the constant need to turn the pile subsides. The microorganisms that have been digesting the woody material and in turn releasing the beginning stages of humus are in full effect. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin to bloom at rapid rates. This is our happy place.  In nature, it can take many, many years for humus to even begin to form. A properly managed compost pile expedites that natural process. From last week:

Traditionally, we’ve spread the compost created on the farm throughout the vineyard and followed up with an implement known as a disc which incorporates the compost into the soil profile. But that's not the only way we use the compost. We have expanded our compost tea program: a process in which you take compost, soak it in a tank of water that is heavily oxygenated, and encourage the beneficial microorganisms to move off of the compost into solution. Next we add nutrients to the tea, and the compost's beneficial microorganisms (now in suspension in the water) begin to feed on these nutrients and extrapolate at a rapid pace. This finished tea is like a probiotic shake for a grapevine, packed with beneficial organisms, and can be injected directly into the soil profile through your drip system or applied to the vine leaves throughout the vineyard. If applied through the drip system, whatever organic matter resides in your soil profile will break down faster while foliar applications have shown to combat powdery mildew and provide nutrients to grapevines.

Composting is a necessary process that takes place on most if not all organic and biodynamic farms across the world. Yes, we could purchase organic fertilizers, but why would we want to, when composting means we reuse the waste generated on our farm, we produce a product that can be used in many ways to increase the fertility of our soil and the health of our vines, and we do it all without having to bring anything in from the outside, with all the trucking and greenhouse gas impact that implies.


Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th


Releasing Esprit de Tablas and thinking about my dad

This is the time of year when we release the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc.  We've been doing this long enough to have a pretty consistent plan of attack each year.  First, in late summer, we send our most recent vintage of the Esprits out to the club members who ordered futures en primeur the year before. Then, the Esprit wines form the centerpieces of our fall VINsider Wine Club shipments, which go out to members in early October.  We show those wines to members at our VINsider shipment tasting party (which happened this past weekend) and look for a local event at which we can have them make their public debut (this year, it will be at our Harvest Festival dinner with the Cass House Grill in Cayucos).

Then, we turn our focus to the national market.  I spend a good chunk of my fall getting in front of our distributors in key markets around the country; in the last few months I've made trips to Boston, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC.  I head to Chicago next week.  Tomorrow I'll make the drive up to Santa Rosa and show the 2016 Esprits for the first time to Regal Wine Company, who represents us in California.  In these presentations, I tell the story of Tablas Creek, remind people that the Esprit de Tablas wines are our flagship bottlings, and share the new vintage with the sales team, who will hopefully then take that message out to the right restaurants and retail shops they call on.

Last year, we realized that the story of Esprit de Tablas was really, in many ways, a distillation of the story of Tablas Creek. It seemed to me that the only appropriate voice to tell this story was my dad's.  So, when I was in Vermont last summer, he and I sat down in front of a camera manned by my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, and spent an afternoon talking about how Tablas Creek came about.

Filming the Esprit de Tablas video with RZH

When we were done, we had about two hours of footage, treasure troves of stories from my dad's 60+ year wine career.  The multi-talented Nathan Stuart, whose primary role is to oversee our animal program, took off his shepherd hat and put on his videographer hat, and spent the next couple of weeks editing the relevant pieces of the story into a five-minute video that traces the development of the Esprit de Tablas, from my dad's perspective.  I'll be showing this video tomorrow to our California distributor, and again next week in Chicago.

I didn't realize, when I went to put my presentation together, how much hearing my dad's voice would affect me, but I've been finding that a lot of the times I miss him most are when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly, and I hear him talking about Tablas Creek, and remember how much he loved working on all this.  I will always feel lucky that I got to spend that time working with him, helping him make his dream of what Tablas Creek could be into reality.

Hopefully, the distributor teams I show this to over the next couple of weeks will find it inspiring, too. And hopefully, I'll make it through my presentation (most of which comes after this video) without choking up.