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September 2021

Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
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
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now, Fall Edition

The seasons are definitely changing, and earlier this year than our last few. It's been cool and breezy during the day. Nights have already dropped near freezing several times. The grapevines have been coloring up like they think they're in New England. And (wonder of wonders) we have clouds:

View between Mourvedre and olive trees

Combine the clouds, the vineyard colors, the lower sun angles, and a touch of humidity in the air, and you have a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west over our oldest Grenache vines into the setting sun:

Looking west through oldest Grenache block

Most people think of wine country in summer, when you've got a high-contrast color palette. Bright blue sky. Dark green oaks. Golden hillsides. Winter and spring are their own kind of beautiful, softer and more yellow-green as the season's rainfall covers hillsides with green grasses and wildflowers. I've shared how much I love getting out into the vineyard to photograph those seasons. Fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you aren't paying attention. All you need is one frost, which usually comes in November sometime, and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But for those few weeks it's glorious:

Long view looking south over Grenache

It's not just the vineyard. The low sun angles enrich the colors of the grasses, as you can see from this shot of a picnic table we've put at the top of our tallest hill:

Picnic table at the top of the hill

Panning back a little more allows the oak trees (beautiful in any season) to be contrasted against the sky, layered gold and robin's egg blue from the clouds and the setting sun:

Looking west through oak tree

One last photo, my favorite of the session, and one of my favorites I've ever taken out at the vineyard. You're more or less in the center of the vineyard, looking west past many of our Biodynamic plantings of flowering herbs and fruit trees, vines to the left turning color while the lines of hills march toward the horizon:

Center of the vineyard with clouds

We may only have another week or so of this landscape. Our first winter storm is forecast for this coming weekend, and if we get any significant wind with the rain, the leaves will likely come off the vines. The rain will begin the vineyard's next transformation from gold back to green. And we'll all celebrate the end of fire season. But if you have the good fortune to be here over the next week, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home. 


When All Roads Lead to Regenerative Organics: An interview with Tablas Creek's Harvest 2021 Interns

By Ian Consoli

Tablas Creek has a highly competitive harvest internship program every year. We receive multiple applications, and typically only two are selected to harvest alongside the regular cellar team. This harvest was particularly competitive as it marks the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest in history. (You can read more about the significance of this event in this blog post by Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg from 2020).

So who did we select? I took the time this week to sit down with two individuals inspired by the promise of regenerative organics. Jennifer (Jenny) Wootten I know well, as we have worked together in the tasting room since she came on as a barback in 2019. Lauren Danna I have gotten to know as this harvest has progressed. Both are inspiring young women who have worked hard all harvest and are beginning to set their sights on their future. One, preferably, involving Regenerative Organic Certified.

I can't wait for you to meet them.

Who are you?

Jenny

I'm Jenny Wootten, and I'm a harvest intern at Tablas Creek.

Lauren

I'm Lauren Danna, and I am also a harvest intern at Tablas Creek for the 2021 harvest.

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna sorting grapesJenny and Lauren on the sorting table

Where did you grow up?

Jenny

I grew up in San Diego, California, in a community called Scripps Ranch.

Lauren

I am from Yuba City, California, a smaller rural town in Northern California.

 

When and how did you get into wine?

Jenny

I got into wine in high school. My interest was piqued on drives through wine country. I had a mixture of interests in culinary arts, chemistry, and biochemistry. I ended up going to Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] for wine and viticulture and stayed in the wine industry afterward.

Lauren

My interest started my junior year of junior college when I was living in Florence, Italy. I majored in Agriculture Business and was exposed to wine through a culture of wine class based on the Italian region that I was living in. That's where it sparked.

 

Is this your first grape Harvest?

Lauren

This is my first grape harvest.

Jenny

This is my second grape harvest, and my first one was in 2019 at Adelaida.

 

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

Lauren

I heard about Tablas Creek through a simple web search. I am really interested in regenerative organics. So one day, I searched "regenerative organic wineries," and Tablas came up everywhere. I did a bit more research and happened to know some people that worked here, so I reached out to them, they filled me in, and I decided to apply.

Jenny

I've been working in the tasting room at Tablas Creek since May of 2019. One of my friends was an officer of the Vines and Wines club on campus, and she made an announcement that Tablas Creek was looking for other bar backs. I wanted to get more involved in the industry, so I started bar backing and eventually started pouring in the tasting room. I graduated this May with more of an interest in production and working in the cellar. So I thought I would go for it and see if they would have me as a harvest intern in the cellar to get a little more exposure.

Jenny in the CellarJenny Wootten in the cellar (Photo: Heather Daenitz)

How did you end up working harvest with us?

Lauren

After speaking with the couple of people that I knew, I connected with Neil and Chelsea. They were interested in hiring me. The timing worked out with when my lease in Denver, Colorado, ended. The stars seemed to align, so here I am doing a harvest!

Jenny

I reached out to Chelsea and asked if they were still hiring interns, and they ended up giving me an interview. They let me know they would be happy to have me on. They have helped me learn more about our production process, which is particularly interesting because I have been talking about the production process in the tasting room for a long time. It's an entirely different thing to experience it firsthand.

 

What routines do you have after long days to prepare for the next day?

Jenny

I like to meet up with friends after work and grab a beer or a cider. Then I go home, shower, and unwind, and try to fall asleep before 10:30.

Lauren

If there's still sunlight when I get home, I like to do something active because it helps me reset. If not, I'll go home, shower, and get prepped for the next day. Like Jenny said, trying to get to bed before 10 or 10:30, but that doesn't seem to happen too often. I feel like I always think I have time to get things done after work, and all of a sudden, I was supposed to be in bed an hour ago.

 

What has been your best memory from harvest 2021?

Lauren

Within my first two weeks here, I was helping fill barrels, and I was unfamiliar with the equipment I was using. On the little remote, there's a knob where you control the speed, zero is slow, and 10 is fast. We're filling a barrel, and I'm watching to make sure we fill it all the way to the brim. My coworker, Kayja, left me for just a second, and suddenly I realized it was getting full. She says, stop it. And instead of turning it to 0, I turned it to 10, and wine goes everywhere, spouting three to four feet up. I was drenched in wine.

Lauren in the CellarLauren Danna examining a tank (Photo credit: Heather Daenitz)

Jenny

A week before I was supposed to start working full-time as a harvest intern, I came in at 7am to work in the cellar before my tasting room shift. That might be one of my favorite harvest feelings because I was so excited to get into it. I got to load a press and do a bunch of other stuff. It was just super fun because I missed the cellar a lot.

 

How does it feel to be a part of the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ grape harvest ever?

Lauren

It's awesome. It's so exciting. Every day I am in disbelief. Especially because that's what initially attracted me to the winery. Seeing the cellar side of it and how it translates into the wine, not just the growing. It's awesome. And I'm so fortunate. It's been a really great experience.

Jenny

My excitement about Tablas Creek being the world's first Regenerative Organic Certified™ winery has been built up through working here for so long. I really want to pursue advocating for the spread of Regenerative organics in the wine industry. Being a part of this harvest has helped me build a passion and excitement for moving forward in my career.

 

What's your ultimate goal in cellar work?

Jenny

My ultimate goal in cellar work is to become more comfortable with all the heavy machinery and processes. In your first harvest, it's overwhelming when you're working with a lot of the new equipment. In your second harvest, it's still overwhelming because you don't use a lot of it most of the year and have to refresh on everything. As someone who wants to pursue winemaking as my future, my goal is to be comfortable in the cellar.

Lauren

I don't really know what my future holds in a cellar. Similar to Jenny, my goal is to continue becoming more familiar with the equipment we use.

 

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere, where would you pick?

Jenny

I think Sardinia or Southern Italy. Before, I would've said Northern Italy because I think Italian reds are really cool. I love the structure they have, the brightness, acidity, and ageability. But recently, I've become a lot more familiar with Southern Italian and Mediterranean island-based wines, like Corsica and Sardinia. Working in that more Mediterranean circle in a unique environment would be super cool.

Lauren

No winery in particular, but a winery up in the Northern region of Italy. I just fell in love with the region when I lived there, and I just love the area and the people and the culture.

Jenny

And a place that follows regenerative organics.

Lauren

Yeah!

 

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

Lauren

2019 Tablas Creek Counoise! It reminds me of when I lived in Italy and had some Chiantis that I said, I can never part ways with this, but I'm going to have to, because I won't live here forever. I've really learned to love how we make wine and the style here, and it was so new. Definitely my favorite as of right now.

Jenny

I am really into trying new bottles from all over the world from different producers, so that's pretty tough. One bottle that is most memorable for me is this 2016 Madiran Malbec/Tannat blend. I think about it somewhat regularly, which is kind of nerdy, but I'm okay with that.

 

What's next for you?

Jenny

Within the next year, I'm going to start the OIB Masters of Science and Wine Management based out of the University of Montpelier. I need to learn French for it, which is a little daunting right now, but that's okay. Before that, I'm waiting for a couple Southern hemisphere opportunities to come about, possibly doing a viticulture internship.

Lauren

This is the question I asked myself pretty regularly. I'm not really sure what's next. I want to try so many other things, and maybe another harvest is in the cards, but that's another year away. I know that I want to be a part of some sort of production moving forward, although not necessarily grapes. I do plan to continue to be involved in Regenerative Organics. However that may be, I'm not sure, but that's kind of where my head is right now with the future.

 

Would you rather:

Fly or breathe underwater?

Jenny

I would rather fly because I'm a terrible swimmer.

Lauren

Fly so I could get to places so much faster, and I could just go whenever I want.

Cake or Pie?

Lauren

Pie

Jenny

Cake

 Old World wine or New World wine?

Jenny

Old World

Lauren

Old World

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Jenny

Winemaker

Lauren

Viticulturist

Jennifer Wootten and Lauren Danna


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine