A Picture Worth 1,000 Words, Mid-Winter Edition

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.  

Winter on Crosshairs
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.


What do you do with a vineyard flock when it can't be in the vineyard? Regenerate your forests.

In the winter, when the cover crops are tall and green, having sheep in the vineyard is pretty easy. There's plenty of food for them. The dormant vines aren't of interest to the flock, who focus on the grasses and weeds. You build up your soils without having to bring in outside fertilizer. You minimize your tractor passes and the soil compaction and diesel exhaust that come with them. This scene, from a few years back, is typical:

Losing the sheep in the cover crop - Roussanne block

The cumulative impact of the sheep, year after year, has been transformational for our soil. The roughly 200 sheep we have drop some 750 pounds of manure per day. All that organic matter provides nutrients to the vines, but also increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Given that we don't have a water table at any depth that roots can get to, our ability to dry-farm is dependent upon how much water our surface layers can hold. The calcareous soils that led us to choose this property are a great start. But the sheep have been a big help here too, and are key to our ability to farm regeneratively, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil.

The challenge comes in the summer months, when they can't be in the vineyard because they would happily eat the leaves and fruit off the vines. Plus, it stops raining in April and as the grasses dry out the flock's food gets scarcer. If you have to bring in feed from offsite it can get expensive. Plus, sheep are natural wanderers, and can develop health problems if they're kept in the same small area day after day. So, what to do? For most of the past decade, they summered on the block we call Jewel Ridge, which we purchased in 2011 but hadn't started planting until recently. But over the last two years we planted about 25 acres of the 60 or so that were cleared there, reducing our summer grazing space by nearly half.

One resource that we do have is our forest land. It's harder to run sheep in the forest than it is in an open space, because setting up the fences requires more work. But there's nothing about sheep that makes them less happy to be in the forest, and nothing about the forest that makes sheep an unwelcome addition to the ecosystem. Far from it. According to our Shepherd Dane Jensen, hundreds of years ago the forests in California's Central Coasts would have been home to massive herds of grazing animals like deer and elk, and those grazers played a big role in keeping the forests healthy. Rather than let grasses and shrubs accumulate, competing with the larger trees, grazers turned that biomass into manure, which got incorporated into the soil. With the arrival of European settlers, land was subdivided and fenced off, the migratory herds of grazing animals hunted for food, and fires (another natural part of the ecosystem) repressed. Forests got denser and shrubbier, which in the 21st Century combine with the warming climate to make the fires that do start more dangerous and destructive than ever.

Re-enter our flock of sheep. Last summer we started grazing them in some limited forest areas that we could enclose. This summer, we've started cutting fence lines through the denser growth so they can get into areas we couldn't touch last year. It's been amazing watching them work. They clear the invasive grasses, the shrubs, even the poison oak. This photo shows them in their first day in a new block, attacking the poison oak with gusto:

Sheep grazing on poison oak

After a few days, they've turned those dry surface plants into manure, and eliminated some of the competition for the oaks. Plus, their work will help that land absorb more of this winter's rains, which will further strengthen the oaks. Check out this "after" photo of the flock in a forest block, with Bjorn the Spanish mastiff typically sleepy as he usually is in daytime. At night he's on high alert, protecting his flock from mountain lions and coyotes:

Sheep grazing in the forest with Bjorn

In the vineyard, we move the flock daily, mimicking the natural patterns where herds or ruminants stay together for safety (the origin of the term "mob grazing") but migrate based on the pressure of predators so that they don't stay anywhere long. In the forests, we enclose a somewhat larger area of a few acres at a time, but still move them every few days, making sure we don't over-graze any section or neglect any others. We know that doing so is good for the forests, and just as importantly, good for our fire risk.

Based on the questions I get, I think that a lot more wineries would have sheep to help with weeding in the winter if they could think of what to do with them in the summer. Here's one suggestion: look to your forests.


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

Gustavo's Garden: Benefits for Our Vineyard... and Our Team

By Ian Consoli

The first summer I worked at Tablas Creek, I was pleasantly surprised to find a constant stream of fresh fruits and vegetables appearing in the kitchen. It didn't take long to find out that the man delivering these treats was Gustavo Prieto. Gustavo has worked in our tasting room, vineyard, and cellar; you can learn about his many talents in an interview we published in 2017.

Another summer is here and, once again, fruits have started making their appearance in the lunchroom. Having enjoyed the fruits of his labor this long, I sat down with Gustavo to hear his philosophy on gardening, how it got started, how his work in the staff garden also benefits the vineyard, and what advice he has for home gardeners.

Gustavo standing in the garden

Please remind our audience where you grew up and how you came to be at Tablas Creek.

I was born and raised in Chile. I went to college at Cal poly San Luis Obispo. I earned a degree in fruit science, which brought me into agriculture. I went back to Chile after earning my degree and worked in produce imports and exports. I moved back to the central coast later and decided to switch careers, venturing into the wine business. A couple of years in, I started hearing about Tablas Creek. Pretty much all the roads lead to Tablas, you know? Every single person that I talked to said, just go to Tablas. So I came one day and tasted the wine, and that was it for me; I applied for a job and started in the tasting room. That was my beginning 14 years ago.

What is your role at Tablas Creek?

I run the biodynamic program at Tablas and keeping it moving forward. That's my primary responsibility, but I also work in the cellar during harvest and various projects in the vineyard. I'm in charge of all the fruit trees, watering, pruning, harvesting, et cetera. In the summer I plant a garden to be enjoyed by the employees.

And that is why we're here, to talk about that garden. Did you have a garden growing up?

Not at my house, but my grandparents'. Both of my grandparents were farmers in Chile. I remember seeing these beautiful, huge gardens, a couple of acres planted with everything from corn to strawberries, cherries, apples, peaches; you name it. Also, greens and summer stuff like squash and zucchinis. Their gardening actually fed a big family, so it was needed and provided fresh fruit and produce for a large number of people. That's the way things were done at the time. From since I can remember, I was working in the garden early in the morning, with the dew on the ground, getting my feet wet, and plucking the strawberries fresh from the plant. I think that planted the seed early on for me to decide to study agriculture.

Do similar crops grow here to Chile, are there some that grow better there than they do here and vice versa?

It's basically the same because we share the same climate due to being in similar latitudes. It is a Mediterranean climate like we have in California, so we can grow the same things here that they can grow there. We're pretty big in avocados, table grapes, and apples.

What do you have growing right now?

We have a lot of tomatoes, which is great, they look absolutely beautiful; lots of corn also. Corn and tomatoes are some of the main things that we grow here. We have different kinds of chili peppers, squash, zucchini, melons, watermelons, a little bit of basil, and pumpkins so that they will be ready for Halloween. Basically, summer crops, plants that do well with the soils and need a lot of heat.

Gustavo picking in the garden

Is there anything that grows particularly well?

From my experience, corn is beautiful every year. Tomatoes do fantastic. Zucchini grows well everywhere; that's not a secret. Squash is the same; they thrive in this dry heat. I planted garlic early this year, very beautiful garlic with nice big heads. I found onions do quite well in these soils. Last year was our first year planting them, and I was impressed by how well they dealt with the temperature. They kept growing through the summer, which they're not meant to, but they did well, and we enjoyed them throughout the season.

How much of the land is dedicated to growing crops?

A quarter-acre.

What do you do with all the crops you grow?

Everything is for the consumption of the employees at Tablas. We distribute everything when they're ready. We just harvested the last of the cherries, and most of the employees got a handful to take home. We'll bring some peaches next and maybe our first nectarines, but the whole idea is to share with everybody.

How does having a garden benefit the vines at Tablas Creek?

It helps bring more diversity to the farm. We're biodynamic, organic, regenerative, and the garden is another level to complement what we've already been doing. The fruit trees, for example, have been planted for many years now, olive trees, fruit trees, et cetera. It also creates a habitat. When corn blooms, the bees go crazy. Everything else blooms and attracts bees, beneficial insects, and different pollinators, bringing more and more diversity to the farm.

What advice do you have for aspiring gardeners to start?

Go for it. Be curious and try things. You will learn from others by asking questions, like what grows best in your area and potential issues. The resources are out there as well. You can get help from the local ag commissioner and farm advisors; all of those people will be glad to help you. Also, don't be intimidated by it. Some people say they don't have a green thumb, but it's like driving; you learn, you mess up a little bit initially, but stick with it, and you will get it.

Any closing thoughts?

Yes, my wife, Heidi Peterson, is a big inspiration for me. My first personal garden was here in California, and she was the one that inspired me to start. She has been gardening forever and shared her local knowledge with me. She really taught me a lot. Putting what I learned growing up in Chile with what Heidi had to offer has allowed me to run the garden here at Tablas Creek.

Gustavo smiling in the garden


A Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour

Over the last year, I've probably spent more time taking pictures in our vineyard than ever before. Part of the reason is because I'm here all the time; in pre-Covid times I would usually be on the road a week or two each month. I've barely left the county since last March. But more importantly, the pandemic has reinforced to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. Even as our tasting room gets back to normal (we're re-opening indoors July 2nd, if you haven't heard) the reality is that only a tiny percentage of our fans will visit us any week or month. If I can make the experience of being here tangible to people, wherever they are, that's an effort worth making.

June doesn't see the landscape change much, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were just in the middle of flowering. Now the berries, on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are growing fast:

Grenache Clusters

A photo of Bourboulenc gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. We've since been in to shoot-thin this jungle, opening up the canopy to light and air, but the vineyard's health is evident from scenes like these:

Bourboulenc block

We've been using the mild early summer weather to get a few new insectaries established in our low-lying areas. These sections will be home to a handful of species of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects. We'll keep them blooming all summer, so the insect population can get and stay established: 

Beneficial insect planting

I took a swing through our Muscardin block. We harvested a tiny Muscardin crop last year off of the 200 vines that we grafted over in 2019, which amounted to just a single carboy (five gallons) in the cellar. We grafted another 750 vines last year. We'll get some fruit off those new grafts, and a much healthier crop off of what we grafted that first year. You can see how well the grafts have taken (below left) and the nice crop level (below right). We're excited to have enough Muscardin in 2021 to maybe even bottle.

Muscardin grafts year 3 Muscardin canopy

One initiative that we've been focused on this year has been to reduce the tillage in our trellised blocks. We don't feel we have a choice in the dry-farmed blocks, but this Syrah block is a great example of where we just mowed and baled the cover crop for our flock, but left the roots of the grasses undisturbed between the vine rows. We're expecting this to have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions.

Syrah block

Another is our estate biochar production. We've been collecting the canes, vine trunks, and fallen wood from the creekbed and have been using an old stainless steel tank as a biochar kiln. Biochar is a remarkable soil amendment, and has additional benefits in water retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality, as its production eliminates the need for burn piles:

Biochar

We're also replanting. In the photo above, you can see in the background a hillside that we pulled out three years ago because we'd lost so many vines to gophers, virus, and trunk disease. It's been sitting fallow ever since, until now. Just last week, we planted new rows of Grenache and Syrah, alternating rows because we're planning to try something new: trellising the Syrah high and vertically so that they can help shade the Grenache and keep it from being bleached by the sun. But that's for next year; these vines just went in the ground:

New plantings - Cote Maduena

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. You can see the contrast between Syrah (below left) which we expect to harvest in early September, and Counoise (right) which likely won't come in until mid-October:

Syrah clusters

Counoise clusters

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this quince is one of several trees with a heavy crop. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall.

Quince tree

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the new dry-farmed Cinsaut block that we planted two years ago in the site of one of our old rootstock fields. It's looking great, with clusters on many of the vines. In the background is our oldest Syrah block, which I wrote about earlier this spring because we're trying to build its vine density through layering. In between is our compost pile, and behind that our biochar prep area. This one photo encapsulates our past and our future. We're excited about both. 

New Cinsaut block


Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine

Introduction
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.

Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:

  • 100% Organic
    • All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
    • Can use the organic seal 
  • Organic
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
    • Can use the organic seal
  • Made with Organic
    • At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
    • Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
    • Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
  • Specific Organic Ingredients
    • For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
    • Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
    • Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.

How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.

Pause for record scratch here. What?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine. 

Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.

Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.

In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:

"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."

So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.

To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.

Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.

The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.

Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.

To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.

Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.  

In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:

"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."

What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:

CCOF Made with Organic Grapes

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.

So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed. 


Down to the Roots: The Appeal of Biochar

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who are tapped into the world of regenerative farming, or if you are a scholar in the study of ancient Amazonian agricultural farming tactics, biochar is probably a familiar term. If not, let me explain. Biochar is an ancient tool used to increase the fertility of the soil that has started to make a comeback in today’s regenerative farming world. At its essence, biochar is essentially a form of charcoal that is incorporated into compost or directly into the soil profile as a means of storing carbon and nutrients and increasing your soil’s moisture holding capacity.

One of the reasons biochar is making such a huge comeback in today’s regenerative farming world is that it is fairly easy to make. You start with a biomass, in our case, grapevine prunings and fallen logs and brush that we’ve collected while cleaning our forest understory to keep our fire risks down. Add some kind of receptacle, or even just a cone-shaped hole in the ground. You then light the fuel on fire burning the material from the top on down. The gases that are contained in that biomass beneath the fire combust and burn off, but leave almost all the carbon behind. If done properly, there is very little Carbon Dioxide released into the atmosphere (imagine a smokeless fire if you will). Once the fire has burned through your pile of biomass, you are left with a form of nearly pure carbon or biochar. This would be the simplest way of creating biochar for small producers. There are many other forms of production as well. There are larger kiln style burners all the way to industrial style setups that companies like Pacific Biochar are using. But in all cases, the idea is that you are turning raw fuel into a stable form of carbon as efficiently as possible.

Biochar - piles

Beyond its carbon capturing ability, biochar improves your soil in several ways. Because of its crystalline structure, one gram of biochar can contain – conservatively – over 2000 square feet of surface area. That surface area has the ability to hold on to both nutrients and water molecules and release them slowly, over time as needed. These properties are very similar to those of limestone. Both limestone and biochar are essentially banks and whenever our grapevines need a little cash, they are able to access the needed resources easily. A recent 3-year study conducted by Monterey Pacific Inc. showed that using biochar in conjunction with compost increased both grapevine yield and soil water holding capacity.

Last year, we ran a biochar trial very similar to Monterey Pacific’s here at Tablas Creek. We incorporated ten tons of biochar into some of the compost we made here on the property. We then took that biochar/compost mix and spread it out on the ground of our pig pen. Next, we moved our sheep into that pen and fed them feed harvested from the property on top of the mix for 3 days:

Biochar - Grazing sheep

We gathered that compost/biochar/manure mix and spread in our trial block. In the trial block we left 2 rows untreated, treated 2 rows with just compost, 2 rows with compost/biochar mix, and 2 rows with the compost/biochar/manure mix, repeated 3 times (18 rows total). We then seeded all rows with cover crop. It did not take a trained eye to see the difference between the rows that were treated and those that were not. The cover crops were happy in all the rows, but those that had the bio-char and compost mix (like the row on the left in the photo below) had a cover crop that was considerably taller than the rest of the block.

Biochar - Growth from application
Beyond the fact that biochar has the ability to increase yields of grapevines and soil moisture holding capacity, onsite production of biochar provides an alternative to the burn piles that pollute the air in many farm areas while also releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Every farming property has to deal with biomass collected from the previous growing season. But choosing to produce biochar with that biomass is a win-win, creating a product that helps our vineyard while significantly reducing air pollution and CO2 release.

Up to this point, we’ve been purchasing biochar for our experiments. In the next couple of months, we’ll be designing a small kiln to trial here on the property. We want to get a feel for the cost, safety, and efficiency of the process. But we feel great about the prospects for this experiment. Whatever canes are left after chipping what we need for our compost program, we will turn into biochar. Whatever wood we collect while clearing the understory of the property to reduce fire hazard and improve access for our flock, we will turn into biochar. The biochar we create will be incorporated into our compost, aerating the pile and helping the composting process, which proceeds better in the presence of oxygen.

So, what do we think the impacts of biochar will be? Better soil fertility and water-holding capacity. A healthier compost pile. Reduced fire hazard and more grazeable land for our herd. Good conditions for the re-growth of native vegetation. More carbon in the soil and less (perhaps dramatically less) CO2 produced. Win-win-win-win-win.

Farm Like the World Depends On It

Biochar - overview


Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™): Farming Like the World Depends on It

By Jordan Lonborg

In February of 2019, Tablas Creek was approached by Elizabeth Whitlow (Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance) to see if we would like to take part in a pilot program of a new approach to farming called Regenerative Organic. It was clear from the organizations behind this effort, including the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s, that this was going to be appealing, both inclusive of and yet more comprehensive than organic and biodynamic. I’ll let their Web site explain:

“Regenerative Organic Certified™ was established in 2017 by a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts in soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Collectively called the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), our mission is to promote regenerative organic farming as the highest standard for agriculture around the world.”

At first, considering the fact that we are already certified organic and biodynamic, juggling a third certification was not the most exciting proposition for me. But as I began to dig through the ROC™ Framework and its requirements, it became clear that this was a certification that Tablas Creek Vineyard had to get behind and fully support. We accepted the invitation to be the only winery in the pilot and the ball started to roll.

Regenerative farming is a style of farming in which soil health and building that soil is the main focus. It is a term that was developed by Robert Rodale (the son of the legendary organic farmer J.I. Rodale) to “distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable.” But as appealing as this sounds, there’s more: regenerative organic builds in requirements that participants also certify the humane treatment of any animals on the farm and that the farming crews are paid living wages, work in safe conditions, and understand their rights. Therefore, this certification incorporates three pillars; soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.

The heart of Regenerative Organic Certified™ is the Soil Health Pillar. The property must be certified organic. Various regenerative farming tactics must be employed such as no-till farming (with few exceptions), cover cropping, incorporation of livestock and mob grazing (when animals are given a small area where they can completely graze that area in a short amount of time and then are moved to start the process over again), and creating habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects are a few of the recommended or required practices. Composting on-site is encouraged. Comprehensive soil tests showing that you’re maintaining or building carbon are a requirement, because one of the fundamental tenets of ROC™ is that farming can be and must be an agent for fighting climate change and reducing the use of nonrenewable resources. After all, their slogan is “Farm like the world depends upon it.”

Mushrooms growing on Compost pile Growth from biochar application


Because of the work we've been doing with biodynamics, there weren't many practices we needed to change or implement here. But the testing that we needed in order to show that we were building carbon content in our soils was tremendous validation that the way that we've been farming really is capturing carbon and building soils that match up well with the highest national and international standards. 

Jordy with AlpacaFor the Animal Welfare Pillar, like the Soil Health Pillar, ROC™ requires that livestock on the property are to be certified organic under USDA standards. The humane treatment of the livestock in all aspects of their life is a necessity. The health, nutrition, shelter (where applicable), protection, herding methods, handling methods, transport, and slaughter are all evaluated when applying to be Regenerative Organic Certified™.

As is true with any pilot program, the goal is to incorporate new standards while providing feedback to help make those standards stronger and more consistent. By this measurement, the pilot program was a huge success. Both Tablas Creek and the ROA learned a great deal about which requirements within the pillars needed adjustments and which didn’t for vineyards. For example, the initial draft of the standards included an ironclad requirement for no-till farming. In the process of trying to achieve the “gold” ROC™ standard, we picked up a few more certifications along the way. Not only is the herd certified by CCOF, Demeter-USA, and Regenerative Organic, they are also certified by Animal Welfare Approved. I can assure you, this highly decorated flock is extremely proud of themselves at the moment and if you were to see them now you’d swear they looked a bit taller.

Flock of sheep in tall grass

What separates ROC™ from most other certifications is its Social Welfare Pillar. The dark side of agriculture in today’s world is how farmworkers are treated. This certification addresses that situation head on. It ensures that the farmworkers, whether employed or subcontracted, receive a living wage, that they understand their rights, and that their working conditions are clean and safe. These are just a few examples of what is incorporated in the Social Fairness Pillar.  

We also received a certification from the Equitable Food Initiative. This group ensures the social welfare of the farmworker crews on the property. We all spent a week of intensive training together. These sessions lasted all day long and consisted of physical activities, team building skills, communication skills (both with each other and management), problem solving skills, and education sessions in which they and we together explored in detail their rights as farmworkers both individually and as a group. It was an extremely powerful week.

Vineyard Crew

Not all of the third party certifications that we obtained are necessary for achieving Regenerative Organic Certified™. We took these extra steps in an attempt to obtain the highest level of the certification. For anyone who is reading this post and is interested in obtaining this certification for your operation, reach out to the ROA to determine where you are on the path to ROC™ and what certifications you will need.

Tablas Creek Vineyard has always been extremely proud of our organic and biodynamic certifications. That said, we have never felt that the certifications were ends in and of themselves. And there are pieces of both of those protocols that we think could be improved. Anyway, we farm the way we do because we feel that it is the right thing to do for the land and the people that work here. But this certification is different. It sends a powerful message to the wine industry, consumers, and our local community. It shows them that Tablas Creek is not willing to accept anything less than the very highest standard for our soils, our animals, and the welfare of the people who work here.

We are beyond proud to be the first vineyard in the world to be Regenerative Organic Certified™ and we fully believe that this certification can and will be the future of farming in all forms of agriculture!!    

A big thanks to the folks at the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s for spearheading this movement! Keep farming like the world depends on it!!!


The Vineyard After a Wet December and a Sunny January is Impossibly Green

Last week, I commented on Twitter that we were entering the season where Paso Robles is absurdly beautiful everywhere you look. Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself.

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December's rain and a mostly sunny January have combined to produce an explosion of cover crop growth, and everything is the intense yellow-green that winter in California produces, so different from the summer gold. There are clouds in the sky to provide contrast to the brilliant blues, the angle of the sun is lower, and you feel like you can hear the grasses growing, making the most of their brief time when moisture is readily available. This morning seemed like a good time to get out on a ramble through the vineyard to document how things look.

Our flock of sheep, if you visit this week, is hard to miss. They've been moving up the hillside behind the winery (which we call "Mount Mourvedre" because that's what's planted there), spending just a day or two in each long rectangular block before being moved up the hill to new (yes, greener) pastures. From just inside our front gate:

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You may notice, looking past the solar panels, that there's a horizontal line a few rows below where the sheep are now. That's the boundary line between where the sheep were until this morning and the new section they just got into. We keep them in any one block no more than 48 hours, so they graze evenly but don't overgraze, and the grasses have a chance to regrow and build more organic matter this winter. Looking down the electric fence line makes it even clearer. The downhill section has been grazed already, while the flock is just getting started on the new uphill section they're in now:

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The cover crop, in areas the sheep haven't gotten to yet, is a little behind where it often is at this time of year because of how late the rain first arrived. But it's making up for lost time quickly, and is about four inches think already. You can see it clearly in this shot, looking uphill through our oldest Grenache block toward some endposts that mark the beginning of a north-facing Marsanne section. When I walked up the hill, there was a turkey vulture on each post, every one basking in the morning sunshine:

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Another view, focused on the vultures more than the green:

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Turning around and looking down the hill, through the Grenache block and over the Counoise, Mourvedre, Tannat, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc sections, gives you a sense of the patchwork of vineyard contours, as well as how green everything is. The more gray-green foliage of the olives stands out clearly.

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While we needed this sunny January to get the cover crop growing and accumulating biomass, it has put us a bit behind where we'd hope we'd be in terms of rainfall. With the month almost over and no real signs of wet weather for the next couple of weeks, we're only at about 72% of normal rainfall to date. There's still plenty of winter to go, and plenty of moisture in the ground, but we're hoping for a wet February and March. For the winter so far:

Rainfall Graph 2019-20 vs Average as of January

Still, none of us are too worried. We've gotten enough rain to this point to have plenty of fodder for our sheep. There's lots more winter to come. And the sunsets? Those are a very nice reward.

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I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you haven't visited Paso Robles in the winter, you're missing out. We'll see you soon.


A New Winery Wastewater Wetlands Area

Back in 2005, the state of California passed a law requiring wineries to treat their wastewater rather than releasing it to a normal septic system. This made a lot of sense to us because the lees and other winery by-products can be acidic enough that they impact the normal microbial function of leach fields. But, what sort of water treatment system was an important question. Most wineries chose a contained treatment unit, basically a small version of the treatment plants that cities or industrial operations install. We chose to go a different way. One available option was to build a wetland area where the roots of water plants would filter the winery wastewater as it passed through a series of gravel-filled lined ponds, until it was clean enough to be applied as irrigation water or to keep dust down on the roads. This solution creates wetland habitat for water-loving birds, amphibians, and insects. We were the first winery in the Central Coast to choose this (at the time novel) solution, and completed the construction of our first iteration of this project in 2006. We have enjoyed the benefits (including getting visits from this great blue heron) ever since.

But we're processing more grapes than we were in 2006, between the winery expansion we completed in 2011 and the growth of our Patelin de Tablas program, and in busy periods in recent years we've been pushing more water through those wetlands than they could really process. So, one of our big projects for this year was to expand the wetland area to the appropriate scale for our production. If you've driven into (or by) the winery in the last six weeks, you've likely seen the work going on:

New wetland construction

As of last week, the ponds are filled and the plants are planted. You can see in the foreground how the wastewater is distributed across the surface of the pond.

New wetlands with plants 2

I think the whole thing looks glorious. This next photo shows off the flowers a little better. It also shows a view of the holding pond in the background. We'll make good use of this water, likely to keep the animal enclosure that's right next to this green and growing all summer long:

New wetlands with plants 1

All wineries (and all businesses) are faced with problems to solve, whether they be inherent in the business or mandated by regulation. Finding solutions like this, that fit into our larger goals and ethos, is one of the real pleasures of running this particular business. The next time you come out to see us, look left as you turn into our gate and you'll see it. Maybe our heron will even make an appearance for you.