We're in week three of sunny January after our rainiest December in nearly two decades, and the vineyard looks amazing. This is peak green for Paso Robles, almost shocking if you're used to it in its summer colors. I've been taking advantage of the sun to get out and take lots of pictures of how things look, and while experimenting with using the panoramic mode on my iPhone vertically, ended up capturing a photo that I feel like tells big chunks of the story of Tablas Creek in one shot. I'll share the photo first, and then break down the story that I see when I look at this picture, starting at the bottom and working my way up to the horizon.
Miner's Lettuce at Ground Level
At the bottom of the photo you can see, nestled among the grasses, spade-shaped leaves of the water-loving California native plant Miner's Lettuce. It thrives in wet soils, and is one of our best indicators that the ground is saturated. It's also very tasty, like a milder, juicier spinach, and was a great source of vitamins for California pioneers (hence its name). I dove into its significance in a blog more than a decade ago, but the take-home is that it's one of my indicators that the soils are saturated.
Native Cover Crop
A little further up, you can see the thick green carpet of grasses and broadleaf plants that are growing around the vines. This isn't a section that we seeded, instead choosing to leave the topsoil undisturbed to allow the plants that summered over to grow naturally. This is not to say that we avoid planting cover crops. We believe in them, and always seed many of our blocks each year with a mix of peas, oats, vetch, clovers, and radishes. But more and more, in the blocks that we believe can support them, we're going to leave sections to seed themselves year after year. And the lush health of this cover crop is a great indication that the goal of building rich, nutrient-dense soils is succeeding.
Head-Trained, Wide-Spaced, Dry-Farmed Grenache Vines Grafted onto St. George Rootstocks
We planted this block in 2012, as a part of our exploration into how we could help the grapes we love thrive without irrigation in our often hot-dry climate. To do this, we looked toward the past, to one of the first rootstocks developed after the phylloxera epidemic, which was widely used in the many California vineyards planted before irrigation became widespread in the 1970s. This is the famously deep-rooting, high vigor St. George rootstock, 100% from vitis rupestris stock, which fell out of favor in irrigated vineyards because of its high vigor, deep root growth, and incompatibility with some wine grapes. But Grenache? Not a problem. It grafts well to any rootstock. The deep root structure? Perfect for our calcareous clay soils, where the top several feet might be dry by late summer. High vigor? Great! Dry-farming grapes in Paso Robles is a naturally high stress endeavor. Giving the vines what they need to survive and thrive is a big piece of our goal each year. And Grenache, the lead grape in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, is originally from the hot, dry Spanish plateau, well adapted both for the Rhone's Mediterranean climate and for ours.
This block is a great example of how we look to the past for our farming models. After all, wine grapes were grown in California for centuries before drip irrigation, and you only have to drive around Paso Robles to see the health of these old vineyards today, nearly a century after they were planted. What do these old vineyards all have in common? Low density (wide spacing). Head-training. Dry-farming. We have high hopes that the vineyards we are planting in this model will be examples to future grapegrowers a century from now, while providing a hedge against near- and medium-term climate change.
Hilltop Owl Box
At the top of the hill, you can see one of the 43 owl boxes we have scattered around the property. Back when there were just 38 of them, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg wrote about their value and even shared directions on how to build your own. These boxes, and the families of owls that they support, are a big piece of our ongoing fight against the gophers and ground squirrels that plague our region. When you commit to farming organically, you lose the ability to poison these rodent pests. You can trap gophers, and we do. But families of owls, each of which can eat 500 rodents in a nesting season, provide round-the-clock vigilance against a wider spectrum of rodents, helping maintain and restore the environment's balance. And that balance is the central tenet of Biodynamics, which seeks to turn your farm unit into a complete and naturally resilient ecosystem. Thirty years into our commitment to organics, a decade into our first forays into Biodynamics, and four years into our move toward Regenerative Organics, these owl boxes are maybe the most visible, understandable piece of that effort.
So, what does this photo tell me? It tells a story of a healthy, balanced vineyard, planted in to a grape and in a way that aligns it with the growing conditions here. It tells the story of vineyard practices that make best possible use of the resources that Nature provides us, those resources encouraged and supported by our farming. And it tells the story of a winter that, so far at least, is playing out exactly as we would have wished.