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August 2022

The vineyard and harvest impacts -- positive and negative -- of our unusual September rain

It's definitely been a month with interesting weather. Just three weeks ago I was writing a blog Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave. And that heat wave was intense, with ten days in a row over 100°F, though we feel like we escaped the worst impacts that were felt in some of the regions to our north. Now, a week after that heat wave broke, we got our first real rain of the 2022-23 winter, and not from some tropical monsoonal moisture that just wandered a little far north, as we sometimes see in late summer here. No, we got a real winter storm plunging out of the Gulf of Alaska, bringing significant rain to the northern two-thirds of California:

While harvest rain is rare here in Paso Robles, it's not unheard of. In the last two decades, the only other year we received September rain was in 2010, but we got rain before the end of October in 2004, 2006, 2021, and most notably 2009, when we received nearly ten inches on October 13th. And it's more common in other wine-growing regions around the world; Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has harvest rain most years, as September and October are the two rainiest months of the year. Walking around the vineyard this morning shows a very non-Californian scene, with mist in the air and droplets of water on the leaves and clusters of the vines that still have fruit. Check out Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right):

Mourvedre cluster after the rain Counoise cluster after the rain

It's not like we got an ocean of rain; we got about a half inch overnight, with potentially another quarter-inch coming today. But the whole experience is rare enough that we've been getting tons of questions about what we expect, and we assembled this morning to discuss what's likely to happen. So I thought it might be helpful if I broke down our risks.

  • Dilution. When grapevines get rain late in the growing season, some of that water is pumped into the berries. That reduces both the percentage of sugar and the percentage of acid in the grapes, at least temporarily. As long as you get dry, warm weather after, that dilution is usually short-lived. And given how dry the summer has been, it's not always a bad thing. If you were following us during the heat wave, you know that we pre-emptively gave some water to our most heat-sensitive blocks, figuring that the minor amount of dilution, if it happened, was better than the alternative of having the vines shut down or even pull water out of the berries, creating hard, unripe raisins. Risk of this being an issue: low.
  • Rot. Fungus thrives in moisture. Luckily, most of the time during the growing season here, moisture is in short supply. But when it rains it offers any available rot spores a chance to grow and spread. Key to whether or not this happens is what comes after the rain. If it turns dry and you get a breeze, the moisture on the clusters is gone before any rot has a chance to take hold. If not, and particularly if it gets warm and stays humid, things can go south in a hurry. Looking at the forecast suggests that while today will remain cool, overcast, and showery, tomorrow and especially Wednesday look clear, dry, and breezy. That's good. On the flip side, the clusters and berries have already taken some damage from the heat, and are starting to soften, offering more opportunities for rot spores to get inside the grapes than you'd normally see this time of year. Risk of this being an issue: moderate.
  • Lack of access. Finally, an issue with wet weather is that it makes it difficult and messy to get tractors into the vineyard. Most times of year that's just an inconvenience; if you can't get into the vineyard to prune, or spread compost, or weed, it's usually not a big deal to wait a few days or even a few weeks. But during harvest, access is more important as grape chemistry can change on a daily basis, and if you can't get into the vineyard to pick you run the risk of missing your window. Mitigating this likelihood is that the grapes don't ripen particularly fast in this weather, and the roughly half-inch of rain isn't enough to saturate the deeper layers of the soil. A few days of dry, breezy weather and this won't be a problem. Risk of this being an issue: low.

 The impacts of the rain aren't all negative. In fact, there are some real positives. They include:

  • Helping the harvested vineyard blocks store energy for dormancy. While we do have some worries about the fruit still hanging, the impact of this rain on the two-thirds of the vineyard that has already been picked is nothing but positive. Those vines have expended a lot of resources getting fruit ripe over the past five months. We still have a couple of months of photosynthesis to go before they go dormant with the first hard freeze. It's normal for us to go through after we've finished picking and give the blocks that we can irrigate a bit of water anyway, to help them continue to photosynthesize and store up resources for next year. This rain does that for us, and more broadly than we ever could. 
  • Giving the grapevines with fruit still hanging the energy to make a final push. We've often seen when we've gotten early rain that after a few days where numbers (sugar and acid concentrations) retreat due to dilution, the vines then appear to get something of a second wind and make more progress toward ripeness than they had been doing before the rain. It's probably intuitive as to why. These vines have been pushing hard, with their most limited resource being water. Giving them the water that they need helps them photosynthesize more productively, and that photosynthesis translates into ripening.  
  • Cleaning the dust off the vines, clusters, and roads. It's been a long, hot, dusty summer. We've been running water trucks from our wetland area over the vineyard roads, trying to keep the dust down so that it doesn't settle on the vines (reducing photosynthesis in the same way in would on a home solar panel) and clusters (where it ultimately ends up settling to the bottom of tanks and barrels as a part of the lees). But while it's impractical to spray off the whole vineyard, that's what this rainstorm effectively did. Hey, we'll take it.

So while the rain isn't an uncomplicated boon, neither is it an unmitigated disaster. What happens over the next few days will determine whether we dodge the risk of rot, or whether we need to redouble our efforts and get the remaining grapes off the vines as fast as we can. If we did have to pick fast, at least everything is pretty much ready. The biggest issue would be space in the cellar, and we're trying to make good use of this break to press off tanks that have reached sufficient extraction to make room for what's coming. But if we get good weather later this week, this could actually end up being a good thing. Please keep your fingers crossed for dry and breezy starting tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unexpected misty respite in what's usually a hot, dusty season. I'll leave you with two last photos so you can enjoy it, too.

Long view over Tannat after the rain

Long view after the rain


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.


If you liked 2007, try 2021: a quarter-century of vintage doppelgangers at Tablas Creek

It's hard to believe, but 2021 was our 25th harvest here at Tablas Creek. What began as a simple model to make two wines, one red and one white, in the style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, has blossomed into nearly thirty wines each year, across three colors, nineteen grapes, and a range of inspirations. We've had hot years (like 1997, 2009, 2016, and this year). We've had cold years (like 1998, 2010, and 2011). We've had "goldilocks" vintages where we hit the sweet middle ground. And yes, every vintage is different. But with a quarter century under our belt, and in response to the questions I get regularly trying to put our recent vintages in context, I thought it would be fun to dive in and talk a little about the vintage character of each of our 25 vintages, and try to give some comps for people who might have worked through their favorite and be looking to restock.

Flagship red vertical

So, from the top. Note that I didn't put anything in for 2022, since we don't know what the wines' characters are like yet from this vintage, though as you'll see there is a year that has some eye-opening echoes to how this vintage is shaping up:

  • 1997: A juicy, appealing vintage that showed surprising depth given that it came from vines at most five years old. Also the warmest year of the 1990s, with weather that is more common now, which led to a mid-August start to harvest. These wines are at the end of their lives at this point, but the red is still sound if well stored. Similar vintages: 2003, 2013.
  • 1998: Pretty much the polar opposite to 1997, with persistent on-shore flow, regular cloud cover all summer, and an October start to harvest. A relatively austere vintage in its youth, it has aged surprisingly well, and both red and white have shown well in recent tastings. Similar vintages: 2010, 2011.
  • 1999: Powerful, rambunctious wines that were the product of a warm, dry year. Whites were good from the get-go, while reds were notably tannic in their youth, though with the fruit to carry it. These wines aged well, and the red was still excellent in a recent tasting. Similar vintages: 2005, 2009.
  • 2000: The first vintage that I think we started to approach the model that we use now, including the debut of the Esprit de Beaucastel. The white was a lovely year for Roussanne, soft and appealing. The reds were earthy and meaty. Both red and white were ringers for Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Similar vintages: 2005, 2013, 2018.
  • 2001: A year with great promise and ample winter rainfall was derailed by April frosts that cost us nearly half our production and led to us declassifying most of our red production into Cotes de Tablas. An outstanding year for whites, though. The low yields and warm summer led to a relatively short hang-time, producing reds with modest concentration and a bit of a tannic edge. Similar vintages: no true comps (thankfully!) though 2009 is probably the closest overall.
  • 2002: A collector's vintage, with dense, ageworthy red wines and powerfully textured whites. The product of the first year in a drought cycle, which typically makes outstanding wines with a balance of concentration and freshness thanks to the vines' stored vigor and the intensifying effect of low rainfall. Similar vintages: 2006, 2016, 2019.
  • 2003: A joyous vintage that we underestimated at the time because it was so appealing and friendly that we thought it wouldn't have the stuffing to age. Then for 15 years we kept picking 2003 out as among our very favorites in vertical tastings. The wines are maybe not among our longest-lived, and are starting to tire a bit, but what a ride they've had. Similar vintages: 2008, 2014, 2020.
  • 2004: A vintage that I remember Francois Perrin calling "square": precise, tidy, well-structured, and classic. Very long ripening cycle, with some rain in October that delayed the picking of our latest-ripening grapes. The wines have generally aged well, and I think of them as being precisely on point for what we were going for at the time. Similar vintages: 2013, 2019.
  • 2005: A juicy, luscious, exuberant vintage in which I feel like you could taste the health of the vineyard, which got 40+ inches of rain after three years of drought. We dodged frosts, had a moderate summer and a long, beautiful fall. The grapes spent an extra month on the vines, and the vineyard was healthy throughout. We saw high yields but excellent concentration and quality. These wines have aged in outstanding fashion, gaining meatiness to balance to fruit, spice, and tannin, and the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel is the wine I pick right now when I'm trying to show off. Similar vintages: 2007, 2017.
  • 2006: Similar overall conditions (ample rainfall, no frost) to 2005, but a later spring and a hotter summer led to wines with a bit more structure and a little less vibrancy. That seriousness meant it was a little overshadowed by the blockbuster vintages around it, and so it was a little bit of a surprise when it produced our first wine (the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel) to be honored in the Wine Spectator's "Top 100". The low acids meant that while it has turned out to be an outstanding red vintage, it was a less strong white vintage. Similar vintages: 2002, 2016.  
  • 2007: A blockbuster year, with ample fruit, structure, spice, and meaty/earthy richness. This was a product of the previous winter, which was the coldest and driest in our history. The resulting small berries and small clusters gave outstanding concentration to everything, and the moderate summer meant that the grapes retained freshness. The reds from this year got some of our highest-ever scores, and many of these are still youthful. The whites were good but at the time we were picking riper than we do now, and I find their elevated alcohols have meant that they aged less well than the reds. Similar vintages: 2005, 2021. 
  • 2008: A challenging growing season, bookended by frosts in both April and October, led to wines that didn't have the obvious early juicy appeal of 2007. But they've turned out to be beautiful over time, with whites showing both texture and lift and reds a lovely chocolate note. This is consistently one of Winemaker Neil Collins' favorite vintages in our vertical look-backs. Similar vintages: 2015 and especially 2018.
  • 2009: The apex of the concentrated power we saw in the 2000s, its low yields a product of our third straight drought year and a damaging frost in April. Then the growing season alternated between warm and cold months until a severe heat spike in September brought many of our grapes tumbling in. We were mostly harvested when an early atmospheric river storm dumped 10 inches of rain here on October 13th, though the three week of warm, dry weather that followed allowed us to bring even those grapes in. The wines were so dense that it took me most of a decade for them to feel approachable, but they're shining now. Similar vintages: none, though these conditions sound a lot like what's happening in 2022.
  • 2010: An outlier vintage for us in many ways, unlike anything we'd seen in the previous decade. Ample winter rainfall and no spring frosts combined to produce a very healthy vineyard and good yields. A very cool summer followed, with harvest less than half complete on October 15th. Warm, sunny weather in late October and early November saved the vintage, and our November 13th last-pick was exceptionally late. The wines showed that coolness in their youth in minty, high-toned flavors, though we were still able to get good ripeness thanks to the friendly late-fall weather. An exceptionally good white vintage. Reds I'm less enchanted by, as they're tasting a little tired right now. I'm hopeful that this is just a stage. Similar vintages: 1998. 
  • 2011: Another outlier, just as cool as 2010 (and much chillier than any vintage since) but with low yields thanks to hard frosts April 8th and 9th. That combination of low yields and cool-vintage character made intensely savory wines, much more reminiscent of the northern Rhone than the south. The wines have aged well, too, while preserving the savory character they had when they were young. Similar vintages: none, though choose 1998, 2010, or 2015 if you want the cool-vintage character, or 2001 or 2009 if you want the concentrated structure.
  • 2012: A friendly, juicy vintage with big yields and modest concentration and structure, as one block after the next came in heavier than we'd estimated, even though rainfall was only about 70% of normal. The accumulated vigor from two previous wet winters and the limited demands on the vines' resources in the frost-reduced 2011 crop meant that it didn't act like a drought year. The wines were friendly and open from day one, and while the ageworthy reds have deepened in tone a bit, they're still medium-bodied and a touch on the simple side, and seem to be on a faster aging curve. Whites are lovely. Similar vintages: 2013 for reds, 2010 and 2014 for whites.
  • 2013: Similar growing season and similar wines as 2012, but we learned from our experience the previous year and proactively reduced our crop levels both to increase concentration and reduce the stress on our vines in this second year of drought. A moderate summer (very few days over the low 90s) maintained lift and translated into a leafy, herby note on top of the fruit. Warm weather during harvest and low yields led to an early start and our earliest-ever finish to harvest, as we made sure that we picked early enough to maintain freshness. Similar vintages: 2012 (but with a bit more concentration), 2018. 
  • 2014: Our third consecutive drought year plus a warm summer produced wines in the classic, juicy Californian style, with a bit less alcohol than those same wines we were making in the 2000s. We got good concentration with yields similar to 2013, though we needed to drop less fruit to get there. The wines are juicy and luscious, with enough structure to keep them balanced and pretty, high-toned red fruit flavors. Similar vintages: 2003, 2017.
  • 2015: A lovely, ethereal vintage that produced wines with intense flavors but no sense of weight. With the drought at its most severe, yields were already low and further reduced by a cold, windy May that particularly impacted our early grapes. The summer alternated between warmer than normal (June, August, October) and cooler-than-normal (May, July, September) months, and resulted in a slow, extended harvest, with many of our late grapes coming in with tremendous expressiveness at low sugar levels. My dad called the vintage "athletic", which I thought was a nice way of getting at its weightless power. Similar vintages: none, really, though 2008 and 2013 have some traits they share.
  • 2016: Even though we were still in the drought, rainfall was a bit better than the previous years, and the vineyard healthier under our new Biodynamic protocols. Yields recovered a bit from 2015 levels. A warm summer produced intense wines, both reds and whites, with dark colors and the structure to age. Similar vintages: 2002, 2006, 2019. 
  • 2017: We felt like we saw a replay of 2005, where 40+ inches of rainfall broke the drought with a bang and the vineyard tried to do three years of growing in one. We dodged frosts, had a moderate summer before a dramatic heat spike in late August, but just as things got critical it cooled in September and finished under perfect conditions in October. Good yields but outstanding concentration and colors, juicy early appeal but the structure to age. Similar vintages: 2003, 2005, 2021.
  • 2018: As played out a decade earlier, a strong vintage that was overshadowed by blockbuster years on either side, producing elegant wines that were easy to underestimate. The growing season was slightly cooler than average except for a scorching midsummer (July through mid-August). Things cooled back down for harvest, and we picked with outstanding acids and solid concentration. This appears to be one of our greatest white vintages, and a strong red vintage though maybe not with the long aging of our best years. Similar vintages: 2008, 2013.
  • 2019: A classic vintage for us, strong for both reds and whites, a product of good rain the previous winter, a cool first two-thirds of the ripening cycle, then consistently warm last third that accelerated the late grapes. The resulting compressed harvest had slightly above average yields, high quality across the board, pronounced varietal character, and good structure on the reds. A classic vintage for cellaring. Similar vintages: 2004, 2016, 2017. 
  • 2020: A year that many of us would like to forget, but which looks like it's produced wines we want to remember. The growing season was challenging, with below-average rain, a cool early summer followed by record-breaking heat in early August and mid-September, wildfires to our north and south, and, oh, a pandemic. The heat produced an early, compressed harvest. Whites turned out to be outstanding, with a lusciousness bolstered by good acids. We're still getting to know our reds, but they appear strong as well, with intense fruitiness and good tannic bite. Similar vintages: 2003 and 2014.
  • 2021: It's our most recent vintage, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think 2021 has produced wines that rival the best we've seen in our history. Yields were reduced by a dry, chilly winter, with 13 of the 16 inches of rain coming in one January storm. The summer was lovely except for a July heat spike, and harvest unfolded in ideal conditions, with each warm stretch followed by a cool-down to give the vines (and us) some time to recover. The resulting wines have concentration and freshness, juicy appeal but structure, and (as we often see in our best years) well defined varietal character. Seemingly equally strong for both whites and reds. Similar vintages: 2017, 2019, and especially 2007. 

One of the most fun things about what I get to do is to come to know wines (and years) almost as people, with personalities and life journeys that add depth to the things we perceive on first impression. Opening an older vintage can be like revisiting an old friend, and sometimes it makes me realize that years have what are in essence sibling relationships with other years. Of course, not every year has a comp. There are some years like 2001, 2009, and 2015 whose unusual combination of factors leads to vintages we just haven't seen before or since. Perhaps that will change when we have a half-century of  years under our belt. I'll report back. Meanwhile, I hope that some of you found this helpful, or at least interesting. If this just raises new questions, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.