The Scruffy Hill Block: A Dry-Farming Success Story
May 25, 2022
Looking down through the Scruffy Hill Block
We talk a lot about our Scruffy Hill block, planted head-trained and dry-farmed to a mix of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne in 2005 and 2006. It's the source of much of the fruit that we use for the En Gobelet and (increasingly) in Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, and perhaps even more importantly the test case for the 60+ dry-farmed acres on the block we call Jewel Ridge. For all that, I realized I haven't really ever dived into the place here on the blog. So let's remedy that.
Our original property of 120 acres included about 100 plantable acres on the northwest side of Las Tablas Creek, about 12 plantable acres on the southeast side of Las Tablas Creek, and about 8 acres of creekbed. The existing well here and the new well we drilled in 1990 were both in the larger parcel on the north side, where we ended up putting our winery building, tasting room, and nursery. If you've visited the property, this is probably what you think of as Tablas Creek Vineyard. We started planting this piece in 1992 and were fully planted by 2004. Those plantings were mostly trellised and irrigated (at least to get the vines established) although beginning in 2000 we started planting some of the valley-bottom, deeper soil block head-trained and dry-farmed.
The 12 acres on the other side of Las Tablas Creek provided a different challenge. We didn't have a well over there, so we weren't able to plant irrigated vineyard. And the steep hillsides and shallower soils meant that we weren't sure how dry-farmed vines would do. So while the rest of the vineyard was neatly planted and maintained, this block was allowed to grow wild each year, then that cover crop was disked into the soil once each spring. As this was before we had a flock of sheep, it got pretty overgrown each year, and we called it "Scruffy Hill". In the map below you can see it at the lower right, to the right of the arrow pointing north.
The Choice to Dry-Farm
We are believers in the power of dry-farming (maybe better understood as unirrigated farming) to produce grapes with maximum character of place. That should be intuitive; topsoil is pretty similar no matter where you are, while the deeper soils have more distinctive fingerprints. Traditional irrigated farming rewards the roots that sit nearest the drip emitters, so the vines tend to grow much of their root mass in the topsoil. Dry-farmed grapevines have much deeper root systems as the plants are forced to explore for water.
As we approached the challenge of planting Scruffy Hill, we looked to models old and new. [I wrote about this in a blog series on dry-farming from 2015.] After our research, we felt confident that if we planted at low density, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which it could pull scarce water, we'd have a chance of the vineyard thriving. You don't have to look far to see 100-year-old vineyards planted this way here in Paso Robles; the Zinfandel and other heritage vines that first established the region in the wine world were planted before irrigation technology existed. And Scruffy Hill, planted in a 12 x 12 diamond pattern at just 350 vines per acre, has thrived. Walking through the vineyard block you can feel them radiating health, bright green, bushy, and robust, like this Grenache vine:
Although the low vine density means that our overall yields off Scruffy Hill are around two tons per acre, we've found that the block suffers less than our closer-spaced blocks do when we have a drought year or a heat spike. Part of that can be explained by the deep root system. But part of it is simple math. Our trellised, irrigated blocks have between 1600 and 1800 vines per acre. So while a drought year might bring half of our normal 26" of rainfall, our wide-spaced, dry-farmed vines still get (per-vine) roughly double the rainfall per vine than the closer-spaced blocks do in an average rainfall year. Yes, we can supplement via the irrigation drip lines if we want, but we just can't put enough water on the vineyard to make up the difference of more than a foot of rain.
To help the vines make it through their first two years, we used a very old-fashioned irrigation technique: 5-gallon buckets, with a hole drilled in the bottom so that the water came out slowly enough that it would be absorbed instead of running off the surface. They got one bucket each year, around mid-summer. Other than that, and since then, they've been on their own.
All of our vineyard is rugged, with large concentrations of calcareous deposits. Those high-calcium soils are a big piece of why we chose this spot in the first place. But there are still differences, with lower, flatter areas tending to have more topsoil over those limestone layers. Scruffy Hill, though, is all pretty steep, and the calcareous soils are evident:
Here's a closeup. An easy life for the vines, this is not:
The vines on Scruffy Hill, as they've matured, have come to be more and more important in our top red blends. It has since 2010 been the overwhelming source of our En Gobelet, which we make entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed estate vineyard blocks, and dedicate to our wine club members each year. In more recent years, lots from Scruffy Hill have found their way into Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie as well. But the block's most important contribution to the work we do has been as a test case. When we bought the next parcel to the south of us in 2011, the success we had with Scruffy Hill gave us the confidence to plant it entirely head-trained, dry-farmed, wide-spaced pattern. That piece (which we now call Jewel Ridge) points our way toward success even in a future where ground water supplies are unreliable or unavailable. We also planted a big section of our westernmost block to head-trained, wide-spaced Grenache and Mourvedre, and are looking for relevant opportunities to do the same as we start the process of replanting weaker blocks in our original vineyard. For now we're at about half our acreage planted in this pattern, and that proportion is likely to grow. All this became viable because of the success we saw with Scruffy Hill.
Scruffy Hill Right Now
For all that, I don't want to downplay how great (and beautiful) a vineyard block it is in its own right. So let's take a little tour. At this time of year, the vineyard is changing fast. A month ago it had barely sprouted. Now the canes are a couple of feet long and still growing fast. The canopy of leaves is dense. This helps shade the clusters of fruit from the intense sun. Later in the growing season, the weight of the clusters will pulls down on the canes, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew. But for now you can see how vertical the shoots are, by and large:
Zooming in toward the vines shows that the early grapes, like the Grenache vine below, are in the middle of flowering, although later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise aren't quite there yet:
I'll leave you with one more photo, looking up at essentially the same view that the first photo gave you looking down. Both the Mourvedre vines in the foreground and the Grenache vines toward the top of the hill are looking great, under a classic Paso Robles early summer blue sky. We might not know where these grapes will be going, but I'm already sure it will be someplace great. Scruffy Hill cleans up pretty well, it turns out: