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March 2019
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An Ideal Beginning to the 2019 Growing Season

In an ideal vineyard world, we get cold, wet weather, with regularly frosty nights, until mid-March, and then it turns warm and dries out after. A pattern like this means that we've banked enough water to give us good confidence in the vineyard's ability to weather the dry season, that we've extended dormancy until late enough in the spring that we reduce our risk of frost, and that once things sprout we can move forward smoothly getting the vineyard cleaned up and the vines thinned and flowering.

Enter the 2019 growing season, which has unfolded exactly as we'd like to see. Our last frosty night was March 14th; it's been mostly dry and benign since then; and the combination of wet winter and warm spring has produced excellent growth in the grapevines, the cover crops, and the flock. The vines are out several inches, and we're even starting to see flower clusters form:

Spring 2019 Flower Clusters 2

We're still a couple of weeks away from actual flowering, but look like we're on a similar path to what we saw last year (when our first flowering happened mid-May). All this is just what we'd like to see, and it gives us the chance to focus on making the most of the explosive cover crop growth we saw last winter. Sure, much of it will be turned under to decompose in the soil, but we've also invested in a new baler which will allow us to dry and store the nutrient rich feed to nourish our flock in the late summer and early fall months when forage is scarce.  These round bales are dotting the vineyard landscape right now:

Spring 2019 Bales of Cover Crop

The eventual goal is to turn even these mowed rows under, accelerating the breakdown of the plant matter and eliminating any potential competition with the grapevines for the soil's water. If we time this right, and avoid any late-season rainstorms, this should be a one-shot effort, and within another month, every row in the vineyard should look like the Pinot Noir at my mom's place (though there's still obviously work to do to get the weeds out from among the vine rows):

Spring 2019 Spaded Vineyard

In all these efforts, the weather pattern that we've seen the last few weeks (a warm-up into the upper 80s, then a cool down into the 60s, then the pattern restarts) is just perfect. Fingers crossed that the rest of spring unfolds as ideally. 


Taking One Last Look at the Winter of 2018-19

Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.

The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:

New Growth April 2019

As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2018-19

In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:

Neil lost in the cover crop April 2019

As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.

Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:

Striated Vineyard April 2019

It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:

CA Poppies April 2019

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.


30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong)

I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. I don't have a photo of that lunch, but I do have one of the ceremonial planting of the first vine, from 1992:

Bob Haas & Jean Pierre Perrin planting first Tablas vine 1992

1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and creating a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.

I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.

Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country
This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer.  But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé. 

Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here
In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also some that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.

Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine
This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.

And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. Opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great options for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.

Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs
Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most important.

Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery
With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that make this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.

Right #3: Organic viticulture works
The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.  

Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em!
At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business.  Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.

The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.

Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key
Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris. 

I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years. 

Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel 
Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.

One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.

Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes
Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.

Conclusion: The next 30 Years
Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.

Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.

Unnamed


Budbreak 2019: We Celebrate a Late Beginning after a Wet, Chilly Winter

This winter has been wonderful. We've accumulated nearly 31 inches of rain, without a single storm that caused us damage, flooding, or even any notable erosion, thanks to an amazing 62 days with measurable precipitation. The green of the cover crops is mind-bending. And it's been chilly enough that the vines have been kept dormant. Our weather station at the vineyard has recorded 29 below-freezing nights, and we've had weeks at a time where the days have been cold too: we had a 39-day stretch between January 31st and March 10th where it rose into the 60s just three times, including several days that topped out in the 40s. That's unusual. But the net result has been that we've been largely free of the worries of recent years that the vines might sprout prematurely, leaving them susceptible to damage from a late frost. 

The last two weeks have felt different. Our last below-freezing night was March 14th. Since March 15th, we've seen six days reach the 70s, surpassing the total between December 1st and March 14th. The lengthening days and the warm sun have produced a wildflower bloom that's getting national media attention. And the vines have begun to wake up:

Grenache Budbreak Silhouette

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.  And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. I only saw signs of budbreak in Grenache (pictured above), Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, and Viognier (below):

Budreak in Viognier

This year is later than many years this decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:

2018: Late March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. It will be at least another couple of weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Mourvedre or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

No budbreak in Mourvedre

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are cued by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis, while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Bud break varies with the winter. Because wet soils retain cold better than warm soils, winters that are both wet and cold tend to see the latest emergence from dormancy. The consistent cold and wet we received in the winter of 2018-2019 meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk.  And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the middle of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. We've been fortunate that the recent storms we've received have largely been warm ones, without frost, and that the extended forecast doesn't seem to contain anything particularly threatening. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2019 vintage.

Budbreak Closeup in Grenache