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 I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle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.


A massive honey harvest from our new Langstroth hives means... a great vintage?

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!

Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.

When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!

As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:

Tablas Creek Beekeeping with Jordy Lonborg from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether.  Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).

Queen BeeCheck out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!

Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them.  When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.

To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.

Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”

Fingers crossed….


An Ideal Beginning to the 2019 Growing Season

In an ideal vineyard world, we get cold, wet weather, with regularly frosty nights, until mid-March, and then it turns warm and dries out after. A pattern like this means that we've banked enough water to give us good confidence in the vineyard's ability to weather the dry season, that we've extended dormancy until late enough in the spring that we reduce our risk of frost, and that once things sprout we can move forward smoothly getting the vineyard cleaned up and the vines thinned and flowering.

Enter the 2019 growing season, which has unfolded exactly as we'd like to see. Our last frosty night was March 14th; it's been mostly dry and benign since then; and the combination of wet winter and warm spring has produced excellent growth in the grapevines, the cover crops, and the flock. The vines are out several inches, and we're even starting to see flower clusters form:

Spring 2019 Flower Clusters 2

We're still a couple of weeks away from actual flowering, but look like we're on a similar path to what we saw last year (when our first flowering happened mid-May). All this is just what we'd like to see, and it gives us the chance to focus on making the most of the explosive cover crop growth we saw last winter. Sure, much of it will be turned under to decompose in the soil, but we've also invested in a new baler which will allow us to dry and store the nutrient rich feed to nourish our flock in the late summer and early fall months when forage is scarce.  These round bales are dotting the vineyard landscape right now:

Spring 2019 Bales of Cover Crop

The eventual goal is to turn even these mowed rows under, accelerating the breakdown of the plant matter and eliminating any potential competition with the grapevines for the soil's water. If we time this right, and avoid any late-season rainstorms, this should be a one-shot effort, and within another month, every row in the vineyard should look like the Pinot Noir at my mom's place (though there's still obviously work to do to get the weeds out from among the vine rows):

Spring 2019 Spaded Vineyard

In all these efforts, the weather pattern that we've seen the last few weeks (a warm-up into the upper 80s, then a cool down into the 60s, then the pattern restarts) is just perfect. Fingers crossed that the rest of spring unfolds as ideally. 


Taking One Last Look at the Winter of 2018-19

Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.

The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:

New Growth April 2019

As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2018-19

In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:

Neil lost in the cover crop April 2019

As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.

Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:

Striated Vineyard April 2019

It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:

CA Poppies April 2019

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.


Compost: Momma Nature’s Gift (A Step by Step Guide)

By Jordan Lonborg

Biodynamics has lots of facets, including applications of minerals, planting of flora, integration of fauna, and even reacting to celestial stimuli. But one of its most important components is one of the oldest, and one of the most practical for the home organic gardener. What is this magical tool? Compost, of course.

What, where, and how do you compost? I'm happy you asked. Essentially, when you compost, you are encouraging a natural process, and then using the beneficial byproduct of what in the wild would be a part of the yearly cycle of growth and decay that takes place in every stand of trees, every forest, and most of all, every jungle on the planet. Simply put, compost is the biodegradation, or breakdown, of plant material that falls to the ground in the form of leaves, fruit, branches etc. The second that material hits the ground, the breakdown begins. This food chain is often invisible, and frequently smelly, but without it, there is no life on this planet. Small insects and microorganisms begin to feed on the litter. As the litter is continuously broken down by various organisms -- insects that you can see with the naked eye, all the way to microscopic bacteria -- nutrient rich humus (not the cracker spread) is excreted. As the humus accumulates, beneficial bacteria and fungi begin to grow. These bacteria and fungi work in symbiosis with the root structures of living plants, allowing those plants to take in the nutrients that are contained in the humus.

Jordy compost closeupA closeup of our compost, with Mycelium, a white vegetative part of a fungus crucial for our compost teas

In a farm setting, where we try to recreate this natural process, there are many ways and forms of composting. At Tablas Creek, we utilize the process commonly known as wind row composting (long rows that are typically 7-8 ft. wide and 5-6 feet tall). When starting the pile, there are a few crucial steps/measures that need to be taken to create a biologically active environment. First and foremost is the carbon (dry, woody material) to nitrogen (“green” material or plant material that still has moisture within it such as pressed grapes or the rachis/stems of the cluster’s that had recently gone through one of the first steps in the winemaking process known as de-stemming). Ideally, this ratio should be 3:1, carbon to nitrogen. Our carbon source comes from all of the prunings collected from across the ranch. We put these through a chipper and add walnut tree wood chips from piles we kept after clearing the old walnut trees from the part of the property known as “Jewel Ridge” (this will eventually be our next dry farmed planting).

Jordy with compostHappy compost makes for a happy Viticulturist!

The carbon sources are collected and piled up throughout the winter months. During harvest is when the magic happens. As grapes are pressed and de-stemmed, we begin to incorporate the skins and rachis into the piles of woody material. The breakdown of the woody material and formation of humus begins at this point. When the green material starts to decompose, heat and moisture start to release, and microorganisms that feed on the woody material begin to feed and populate. At this point, it is crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile. The ideal internal temperature of a pile that is actively composting is 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. When green material is incorporated into the pile in the beginning stages, decomposition of the green material can occur so quickly that temperatures within the pile can skyrocket. When a compost pile experiences prolonged temperatures of 170 degrees and above, anaerobic (oxygen deprived) conditions begin to form, which both suppresses the growth of of beneficial microorganism and allows other non-beneficial microorganisms to take their place. To prevent this from happening, we “turn” the pile.

Turning our compost pile has become what Neil Collins, Tablas Creek's most esteemed (OK, he's the only winemaker since inception), termed an “obsession” of mine. He is correct. Taking a 20” thermometer and inserting into a pile that is 8’ wide, 6’ tall, and 50 yards long, at this point in the year and reading temperatures that exceed 170-180 degrees absolutely blows my mind. Therefore, to encourage the beneficial microbiological activity within the pile, and with hopes of trying to get the temperature to stabilize at 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun is coming up I hop in the loader, and begin to move the pile, scoop by scoop to an adjacent location. This process incorporates oxygen, decreases the temperature, and disrupts and any anaerobic activity that may be beginning to occur. It’s an amazing sensation when you start getting into the heart of this pile that is creating ridiculous amounts of heat, steam, and smells during cold mornings at sunrise. The aerobic, properly composting sections of the pile smell amazing. Like earthy, mulled cider to an extent. When you hit the anaerobic areas, they also smell amazing but would be considered more of a stench than anything. I’m still working on a descriptor, but think of a hot swamp. No bueno. During this point in the year/composting process, we turn the pile every 2-3 days. In time, the temperatures begin to stabilize and the constant need to turn the pile subsides. The microorganisms that have been digesting the woody material and in turn releasing the beginning stages of humus are in full effect. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin to bloom at rapid rates. This is our happy place.  In nature, it can take many, many years for humus to even begin to form. A properly managed compost pile expedites that natural process. From last week:

Traditionally, we’ve spread the compost created on the farm throughout the vineyard and followed up with an implement known as a disc which incorporates the compost into the soil profile. But that's not the only way we use the compost. We have expanded our compost tea program: a process in which you take compost, soak it in a tank of water that is heavily oxygenated, and encourage the beneficial microorganisms to move off of the compost into solution. Next we add nutrients to the tea, and the compost's beneficial microorganisms (now in suspension in the water) begin to feed on these nutrients and extrapolate at a rapid pace. This finished tea is like a probiotic shake for a grapevine, packed with beneficial organisms, and can be injected directly into the soil profile through your drip system or applied to the vine leaves throughout the vineyard. If applied through the drip system, whatever organic matter resides in your soil profile will break down faster while foliar applications have shown to combat powdery mildew and provide nutrients to grapevines.

Composting is a necessary process that takes place on most if not all organic and biodynamic farms across the world. Yes, we could purchase organic fertilizers, but why would we want to, when composting means we reuse the waste generated on our farm, we produce a product that can be used in many ways to increase the fertility of our soil and the health of our vines, and we do it all without having to bring anything in from the outside, with all the trucking and greenhouse gas impact that implies.


Consumers don't really understand the difference between Organic and Biodynamic

Neil, Jordan, Gustavo and I spent last weekend representing Tablas Creek at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, up in the beautiful San Francisco Presidio. San Francisco was putting on a show, with gorgeous cool, sunny spring weather, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge out the Golden Gate Club's windows was pretty much the best conference backdrop imaginable. The audience there was passionate and eager to share what they were doing. I was grateful that the show was mostly free of the mysticism (think lunar cycles and homeopathy) that makes many people leery of Biodynamic practices.  Instead, it offered deep explorations of soil microbiomes, of the science behind the Biodynamic preparations, and of the costs and benefits of different farming practices like tilling (vs. no-till), composting (what's the right mix and what are the benefits of applying it in tea form vs. spreading solid compost), yeasts (what happens as different "native" yeast strains take lead), and pest control. It offered grand tastings for the trade and for the public.  It was an inspiring mix.

Biodynamic conference crowd

The conference also offered a few different sessions on the marketing of Biodynamic wines.  One such panel discussion featured Gwendolyn Osborn, wine.com's Director of Education and Content. They recently added a Biodynamic landing page (wine.com/biodynamic) for all the wines that they sell made from Demeter-certified vineyards.  It’s great for the category to see such an influential retailer provide this focus.  And people (at least some people) are asking about Biodynamic wines.  In the archives they have from the hundreds of thousands of chats between their sales consultants and their customers, roughly a thousand contained the term "biodynamic". (By contrast, according to Gwendolyn, "organic" appeared about five times as often).

At the same time, the examples she shared suggested that wine.com’s customers, at least, don’t really distinguish biodynamic from organic. Most of the examples she showed that asked about biodynamic did so in a “biodynamic or organic” phrasing (as in, "I'd like to buy a Sauvignon Blanc around $20, and I'd prefer it be biodynamic or organic"). This is interesting to me in part because my elevator pitch introduces biodynamics in a very different way from organics. In fact, in many ways they are opposite approaches to sustainability.

Let me explain. Organics is, essentially, a list of things that you can’t do. Certification for organic status requires verification that you do not use the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that together have come to define modern industrial farming. As such, the practice of organics is preoccupied with the effort to find organic replacements for the prohibited chemicals you can’t use. Think organic fertilizer. Or the pursuit to make an organic Round-Up. In both cases, you're still controlling the application of fertility, and the systemic removal of weeds and pests; you're just doing it in less toxic, less chemical ways. That's a great first step, which we should be applauding.

A quick semi-aside: the sustainability certification movement came in for some pretty heavy criticism at this conference as in many cases offering little more than greenwashing.  While I'm of the opinion that we should celebrate anyone's move toward greater sustainability -- whether that's moving from conventional farming to sustainable, or from sustainable to organic -- I think there's a lot of truth to one presenter's comparison of the average sustainability certification as cutting back from 20 cigarettes a day to 10, in that you're still applying chemicals and poisons:

Biodynamics, by contrast, is the effort to make a farm unit into a self-regulating ecosystem. It prescribes the conscious building of living soils through culturing biodiversity and adding preps that contain micro-nutrients. Together these encourage the growth of healthy microbiomes and (thereby) farm units. Yes, the elimination of chemicals is a prerequisite, but it’s not the goal. Instead, it’s a necessary step in the creation of a self-regulating environment. And that healthy environment, which is resilient in the face of pest or weed pressures, is biodynamics’ reward.

In our work at Tablas Creek, the self-contained farm unit appeals to us because we are dedicated believers in doing everything we can to express our property's terroir: the character of place that shows through in a wine. Each thing that we otherwise have to bring in from the outside that we can instead create internally through a natural process brings us one step closer to that ideal of expressing whatever terroir we have in our land. And that’s why biodynamics has so much appeal for us: on the one hand, we're building a healthy vineyard that will hopefully live longer, send roots down deeper, and be more self-regulating. On the other hand, the fruit -- and, assuming we do our jobs in the cellar, the wine -- will be as distinctive as possible, with its Tablas Creek personality shining out. 

That's a win for us. And for our customers. And for our neighbors and the community we're a part of.