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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
A 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).
Happy 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:
Some steamy early morning compost action! As our piles grow our Viticulturist Jordan is turning them to ensure that they don’t build up too much in temperature as the microbial activity builds. The temperature on this pile reached 180 degrees this morning! pic.twitter.com/wjPInPhaAQ
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.
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.
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.
He strolls into my office, bright and bushy-eyed with his dilapidated Yeti in hand, no doubt on his fourth or fifth cup considering he’s been up with the sun. His stained brown Carhartts do little to hide the evidence of our lambing season that is currently going on here at Tablas Creek Vineyard. As intrigued as I am, I dare not ask about the exact origins of the stains because after all, I myself am barely through my first cup. Maya, one of his Border Collies, slinks in and flops down upon my feet. Already this is an interview I can get behind.
Nathan Stuart is our shepherd here at Tablas Creek, and one of the central figures in our recent co-branding with outdoor retail giant Patagonia Inc. We all know them for their unparalleled wizardry with all things fleece and Goretex, but they also represent something far beyond climbing gear and backcountry men with a penchant for beards.
Not only is Patagonia a leading example on sustainable, green business practices with their Footprint and Worn Wear programs, but they are also one of the leading corporate voices in the fight for preserving our lands for generations to come.
They are known for radical moves such as donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to grassroots nonprofits ($10 million in 2016 alone). And their recent fight with the federal government on behalf of our national parks. The fact that they are a B Corp -- a for-profit company that is using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems -- says a lot. Their mission statement is "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
You could say we’re fans.
Late last year, we became one of the companies in the United States that Patagonia has been willing to co-brand with. Co-branding happens when two brands agree to join forces to share a product indicative of both their identities. Upon learning this, I was eager to unpack what the process was that led to this move by both our companies, as well as why we were chosen to be one of the companies to share brands on their gear and be able to resell it in our tasting room. I can also safely say, the Tablas crew has never looked more dashing battling the frosty morning winters here in Paso.
Basically it all boils down to two words: carbon sequestration.
If that phrase makes you scratch your head as much as it did me, have no fear because that is where our indomitable shepherd Nathan comes in, along with our Viticulturist and resident vine whisperer Jordan Lonborg to explain the science behind it. But first, some context.
Since our inception, Tablas Creek has made it a priority to farm with as positive an environmental impact as possible. We have been organic since the day our first rootstock touched the soil and certified Demeter biodynamic as of last year. As Nathan says in his characteristically blunt way, “at Tablas we were organic before it was popular. We’re certified biodynamic which is just taking that to the next level. We’re holding ourselves to a higher accountability and pushing to create something that goes beyond us.”
Our flock of some two-hundred sheep and alpacas, plus a llama and donkey or two, is the core of our vineyard's holistic management program. According to Nathan, "holistic management encompasses organic, biodynamic, mob grazing, rotational and regenerative grazing, and asks how we can best benefit the land. We use varied processes depending on the acres, so we are responding directly to the land and listen to what it needs from us to build the relationship." The sheep are moved every couple days to a new section of the vineyard, where they fertilize and till the soil, providing nutrients for our vines and controlling weeds. "The way we manage the sheep on our land is attempting to mimic the buffalo of the plains in centuries past" Nathan continues. The American plains were amongst the most fertile soils in the world, massive repositories of organic carbon, and the rotational grazing provided naturally by the vast, moving herds of American buffalo were a large part of why.1
While our grazing plan falls into Nathan’s sheepish hands, the care of the vines themselves is the responsibility of Jordan Lonborg, our Viticulturist. Upon joining the Tablas family in 2016, one of Jordy's first goals was to move forward with biodynamic certification. He broke down the soil and vine management in a way that didn’t leave my right-oriented brain spinning:
"We are creating a self-sustaining ecosystem right on the property. In order to do this we need to maintain the balance of the land. All of our grape skins, stems, and vine prunings are incorporated into our massive compost program and are returned to the soil on a yearly basis. We capture native bee swarms on the property and raise them to assist in pollination of our cover crops. There are large swaths of beneficial insect gardens planted throughout the vineyard to attract predatory insects, as well as providing a source of nectar and pollen for the honey bees in this arid climate. We also have an ever increasing raptor program on our acres as well. To enhance biodiversity we plant at least one fruit tree for every acre of grapevines on the ranch. Most importantly, we employ a group of 8-10 people throughout the entire year for vineyard work rather than hire random crews for labor as we need them. Our footprint is already smaller than most in this industry and we only plan on continuing to make moves to decrease it.”
So how do regenerative grazing and bee swarms and all these holistic processes tie into carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in another form to help slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the vast majority of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Soil that is treated with anthropogenic fertilizers or pesticides is not able to accumulate or break down the organic matter that holistic soils can. Organic matter equals carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere. And there are other benefits. In Nathan's words: "Soil holds carbon. Carbon holds water. So if we hold more carbon in the soil instead of the atmosphere, we’re pulling more water out of the air. And water vapor is another greenhouse gas. Think of it like a holistic raindance if you will, which is attempting to slow the heating of our climate. The carbon is in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’re working on doing what we can to set us on the right path once again." Carbon sequestration is the key, ultimately, to reversing the most critical environmental impacts of the industrial revolution, and is the ultimate goal of the new wave of sustainable agriculture.
A short video that Nathan referred me to called The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground proved to be immensely insightful. Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit working on creating greater public engagement with the pervasive issue of global soil restoration. And not to mention their graphics guy has some serious skills.
Between our holistic approach to vineyard management and Patagonia's stalwart belief in the fundamental importance of sustainable green business practices, the co-branding is something we can all be proud of. When I asked Jordy why he thought the Patagonia co-branding made sense he replied,
"When it comes down to it, it’s about trying to be the best stewards of the land we could possibly be. I think that’s the bottom line of both companies, obviously there’s a profitability side to it and everyone’s got to be able to run a business and make money, but that’s not the reason we come to work everyday. We use our position in the wine industry to shed light on important sustainability processes. And in the end we do spend more money than most wineries to achieve that stewardship and I think Patagonia’s probably right along the same path."
Leslie Castillo, our Tasting Room Team Lead as well as the wife of our shepherd Nathan, and avid reader of everything Yvon Chouinard, was our point woman in reaching out and building our relationship with Patagonia. “I 100% believe in what we do here at the vineyard with our wines, and so I also wanted to start working with people and companies that are like-minded, people that care about the planet in an intentional way and not just for marketing. I see that in Patagonia.”
She, along with all of us here at Tablas who strive to uphold the ideals we think a business should embody, are fortified all the more by the decision to co-brand with a company such as Patagonia.
We are merely two companies amongst thousands in our respective fields. But we each try to do our part individually. If we can work together to accomplish more, we should.
Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays. Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents. His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate. I found the whole talk fascinating.
In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture. But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics. Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.
Our flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)
So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.
One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard
We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.
Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines
In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:
A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried. Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)? I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.
So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify. We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.
One of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator
But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them. And so, we moved forward with the certification process.
And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.
So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.
If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.
For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).
Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:
Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:
If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.
Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep. If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack
We are just finishing the time of year in which we can safely have our animal herd out in the vineyard. With the continued progression of budbreak, even our latest-sprouting grapes are starting to push buds. Leaves are not far behind. So, we've moved the animals to two vine-free sections of the property: the new parcel on the other side of Tablas Creek, and a smaller area in the middle of the vineyard where we pulled out some struggling Syrah and Roussanne vines, and which we are letting lie fallow this summer.
Still, it's not hard to see the impact of the animals on the blocks in which they spent time, particularly at the fence lines which mark the dividers between grazed and ungrazed areas. I snapped a photo of one of these borders yesterday, halfway up the hill of Mourvedre that's behind the winery:
Five days ago, the entire hillside looked like the prairie. Now, the bottom dozen rows (beginning at the middle of the frame above) look like they've been neatly mowed. It took the animals just two days to graze their enclosure down to a few inches. They spread manure throughout the block. And we didn't have to use an ounce of fuel or a single tractor pass to accomplish either goal.
This is the second time this winter that this block has been grazed by our flock; we moved them down the hillside in January. So, even the tall grass on the uphill side of the fence line is regrowth after an initial grazing, fueled in part by the fertilizer left behind on the animals' first pass.
It is this efficiency -- that we can use natural processes instead of artificial ones -- that makes Biodynamics so appealing. We're creating a more complete, more resilient ecosystem by building biodiversity, and saving ourself the costs (and side-effects) of having to buy (and spread) fertilizer, and of having to drive through the vineyard (and compact the soil with a tractor) mowing. The other benefits -- better water retention, no erosion, more topsoil, and the occasional lamb chop -- just tilt the cost/benefit calculation further in the right direction.
I drive by a few vineyards each day on my way into work whose soils look dead. Between the herbicides they use to keep weed growth down and the soil compaction created by the tractor work, even this winter's ample rainfall couldn't make grasses grow. The difference between soils like that and what you see above couldn't be plainer. Do you think this difference will impact the grapes that grow there, and the wines that result? You bet it will.
Scattered through the vineyard and amongst the vines are various fruit trees, planted to reel in beneficial insects to roost. Not only do the fruit trees break up the monoculture of solely growing grapes, they provide a healthy bounty of fresh and delicious produce for the staff to enjoy. Throughout the year, we are able to enjoy fresh vegetables from the garden and fruit from the trees. However, in the dead of winter when garden life is on a brief hiatus, we get to enjoy quince paste, made from quince off our estate and preserved in the chilly confines of our cellar.
Quince paste (or membrillo) is simple in its ingredients and lengthy in its process. The fruit is harvested in the fall, around the same time as some of our late ripening grapes, like Mourvedre and Roussanne. As of now, there are three quince trees planted on the property. Even though they are quite youthful and small, they produce close to forty pounds of fruit. Once the fruit is harvested, it's cored and prepped for a stovetop simmer. [We detailed this process on the blog in late 2015.]
From the cores, the seeds are collected and wrapped in cheesecloth and thrown into the pot for maximum extraction of pectin. Pectin, for those (including myself) who do not can/preserve often, is a necessary ingredient that is basically the binding agent and key in the successful setting of the paste. Slowly reduced and concentrated in color, the quince paste is poured into baking dishes, where it sits and dehydrates for a few weeks before it's ready for consumption. All this is overseen by Gustavo Prieto, jack of all trades, one of which is maker of quince paste here at Tablas Creek (for more on Gustavo, check out his recent interview). The result:
Manchego cheese, quince paste, and the flight of Tablas wines
Quince paste can be enjoyed as a substitute for a jams and preserves in recipes, or simply spread on crackers or toast. In Spain, quince paste is traditionally enjoyed with Manchego cheese made from sheep's milk. Produced in the region of La Mancha, Manchego has a soft nuttiness and firm, creamy texture. As soon as I took a bite of the cheese and quince, I understood the pairing completely, but what I didn't understand was how I missed out on this for so many years! But what Tablas Creek wine pairs best with this classic combination? Gustavo and I decided to find out.
Quince paste, or membrillo
The line-up included 2 dry wines (2013 & 2014 Roussanne) and one with a hint of residual sugar (2o14 Petit Manseng)
We had to dig into the library for this one, but as you'll find out, it was well worth it!
The four wines we tasted were: 2013 Roussanne, 2014 Roussanne, 2014 Petit Manseng, and 2003 Vin de Paille. Of the four, we leaned towards both the 2013 Roussanne and the 2003 Vin de Paille. 2013 Roussanne was beautiful with a slight salty salinity (try to say that 3 times fast!) brought out by the Manchego. Quince is quite rich and textured on its own, without being overly sweet (which is surprising, considering the recipe for making quince paste is just quince and sugar!). The 2003 Vin de Paille was just gorgeous. I was reviewing my tasting notes and I actually wrote gorgeous three times in a row! The viscosity and richness was there, without being offensively sweet. Sweet notes of ripe nectarines and honey shone through, making this an absolutely memorable wine in my book. We also experimented outside of the three step pairing and did a tasting with just the cheese and were pleasantly surprised to find that the Petit Manseng was the best fit. We loved Petit Manseng's bit of residual sugar and nice tropical notes that stayed with us through each bite of cheese. It was as if the sweet notes of the wine replaced that of the quince paste, playing up the nice creaminess and saltiness of the cheese. Overall, we were really excited about exploring the many avenues of our wines, both new and old, dry and sweet.
If you love quince and Manchego or if you have another idea for a pairing that would work, be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas
A few resources:
The 2013 & 2014 Roussanne are available for purchase in the tasting room or via the online shop, although quantities for the 2013 are getting low.
The 2014 Petit Manseng, although out of stock, has been replaced by the delicious 2015 vintage. Order in the tasting room or on our online shop.
If you're interested in the Vin de Paille, you're in luck! We have just under a case left and we'd be happy to sell you a bottle (or two!) in the tasting room or online shop.
As many of you know, we have been building up our flock this year. The animals help nourish our soil, spreading manure thoroughly and evenly, reducing or eliminating our need to bring in outside fertilizer. They help keep weeds down and reduce the number of tractor passes we need come spring. And they attract different microbes and insects into soil that is vibrantly alive in a way that just doesn't happen in a monoculture. The past few years, we've had around 80 sheep, along with a few alpacas, two donkeys, and a llama. Now, thanks to a fertile winter season, we're up to 165 sheep, plus the other members of the menagerie. The flock can at times be seen from the tasting room, but is more often working quietly, out of view:
The results, for us, have been remarkable. In this record rainy winter, we've seen practically no erosion, as the soils have absorbed massive quantities of the rainfall we've received. The cover crops have thrived in the nutrient-rich soils the animals leave behind. The regular movement of the animals around the property has meant that in what could have become an overgrown jungle, we've instead kept the grasses under the height of the cordons, which will help as we get to frost season. And because we've moved the animals out of each block after just a day or two, they haven't overgrazed anything, and the grasses have resumed growing right away, giving us that much more biomass from our winter months. We are excited for the vines to reap the benefits of this investment come spring.
Our goal is to graze the entire property twice each winter between harvest and budbreak, at which point we have to move the animals out of the vineyard lest they eat the new growth off the vines. We'll probably manage that this winter, thanks to the early start to the rainy season and the early end to harvest. But for a normal winter, Nathan -- the experienced shepherd who we brought aboard last year -- estimates that we'll need about 200 sheep to get the entire vineyard grazed. Hence why we've been building up our flock.
As a general rule, you get 1.5 healthy lambs per ewe each year. Many have twins, but some don't lamb at all, and some lambs don't survive. But even so, you can grow your herd fast. We got 86 lambs this year from our 55 ewes. Luckily, 53 of these were female, and will be added to the flock long-term. But once they reach maturity, you can run into problems if you have too many rams in a flock. Some rams will fight for dominance.1 But even if you get lucky and they don't, the extra rams are still mouths to feed during the dry summer season, where forage is at a premium because the animals can't be in the vineyard, and extra rams won't contribute to the building of the flock for the next year.
So, for the last few years, we've been reaching out to local restaurants about our male lambs, once they reach a certain age. It's perhaps not surprising that these have provided some of our most memorable food and wine pairing opportunities. The lamb, as you would expect from where and how they graze, is some of the most delicious -- as well as the most sustainable -- meat you'll ever taste. And to have it come from the same place as the wine, grown on vines nourished by the healthy soils the animals helped create, ties together what we really love about Biodynamics.
With the growth of the flock, we're no longer talking about a dozen or so lambs a year. This year, we have about 20 year-old lambs from last year's brood, and another 30 or so from this winter's. We will continue to work with our local restaurants, and are in fact hoping that you'll see Tablas Creek lamb on more local menus. But after receiving a number of inquiries from consumers, we've also started working in a small way with Jensen Lorenzen's Larder Meat Company.
Many of you will remember Jensen from the Cass House in Cayucos, where he was the chef and his wife Grace ran the dining room and wine program. When the property sold a couple of years ago, he started what is, in essence, a meat club. Using his contacts with local farmers, he's sourced high quality beef, pork and chicken, always whole animals, always pasture raised and humanely (and locally) harvested at a USDA-licensed facility. He divides up the meats into a monthly "share", and his members receive a mix of cuts in each box, along with recipes and pairing suggestions.
So, when Jensen (above, working on a recipe with one of our lamb shoulders) reached out to us to see if we would be willing to create a "Tablas Creek lamb" offer with him, we agreed. If you'd like to try it, these lamb boxes are 6 lbs. each, and include a roast, rack and/or chops, ground lamb and sausage, as well as Jensen's Larder lamb seasoning and recipe ideas. They cost $98, shipping included (CA only)2. If you'd like to learn more, or sign up, you can here.
Delicious lamb, raised on a certified organic (and hopefully soon certified Biodynamic) property, with recipes from one of our best local chefs? Knowing that the lambs helped produce great wine (that I might even choose to pair with that lamb)? And knowing from first-hand experience that the lambs led good lives and were humanely harvested? Even for me -- and I am typically skeptical of arguments touting ethical meat production -- that works. If it works for you and you decide to try it, we hope you will let us know what you think.
In the wild, young rams leave the presence of the dominant male, often spending several years on their own. When they come back, they fight for the right to breed. Neither the leaving nor the fighting are practical in a working flock. We left a young ram with the flock longer than we should have a few years back, and he was so badly injured in a fight with the dominant ram that he had to be put down.
Jensen has not yet shipped anything out of state. But it sounds like it's possibly in the works for the future.
When work doesn't feel like work and is a joy, you know you've got it made. By this measure, Gustavo Prieto lives an incredibly fruitful life, balancing passion in his work with a zeal for adventure. From cellar to vineyard to tasting room, Gustavo's role at Tablas Creek is as fluid and multifaceted as the seasons themselves.
Where were you born and raised? I was born and raised in Chile and moved after high school to attend university at Cal Poly.
What did you study at Cal Poly? I studied fruit science there for five years. After that, I moved a lot, always working in the produce industry. I was in Holland for four years, moved back to Chile for eight years, then finally back to California for good in 1999. In 2000, I decided I needed a break from that industry, and just did some consultating on the side.
When did you get into the wine industry? I got my first winery job in 2005, working for Wild Horse during harvest and I just loved it! That was my first harvest and after that, I decided that I wanted to continue working in the wine industry. I worked a harvest at Bianchi on the east side of Paso Robles, then after that, I started hearing a lot of conversation about Tablas Creek and I got really curious about it. In 2007 I was able to get a position in the tasting room and have been here ever since. When I first started I was primarily tasting room, but that grew into doing more out in the vineyard and the cellar. I had a lot of experience with farming and produce, so Levi (our then viticulturist) asked me to help him out with some cool new projects. We wanted to get a staff garden going on the property, as well as planting more trees for the orchard. I also work in the cellar during harvest season.
Why is planting trees and a garden important for the vineyard? It's important for diversity in the vineyard. I mean, we've been growing grapes here for a long time, so growing other crops gives us the opportunity to be around other types of agriculture. Neil introduced the idea of planting fruit trees to bring something else that we didn't already have into the vineyard. By bringing in the fruit trees, we are breaking up the monoculture that is just growing grapes. And we have so many different kinds of trees! Mostly apples, but we also have pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, quince, pomegranates, fig, cherries, and persimmons.
In the last few years, I've been able to work on a garden, to both diversify the vineyard and provide our staff with good organic produce. In the summer, we have fresh tomatoes, corn, zucchini, squash, melons, radishes, basil, and more. Again, all that adds to the biodiversity in the vineyard. Same with the animals that Nathan's working with and the bees that Jordy introduced. We have this place that is rich and diverse in other elements. We aren't just growing grapes- we're doing much more than that.
What is your vineyard or garden philosophy? My philosophy is to bring back Mother Nature. Mother Nature is so savvy and I truly believe will always outsmart us. It's very resilient. I think that's what we, globally, need to get back to. Nature dictates what we do out there. Let the process flow as naturally as well as we can, by guiding in an efficient way. In the end, nature will reward us with what we want to achieve, and in our case, that is to produce good quality grapes on a healthy vineyard. We do that by not using any chemicals. You see, nature in itself helps to keep the population of bad insects under control. It's not about eliminating them, but more about the beneficial insects keeping them under control and not letting them get out of hand.
You're coming up on your 10 year anniversary here- what has been your most memorable experience at Tablas Creek or in the wine industry in general? One of the many highlights was going to France in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I went to work for Chateau de Beaucastel for harvest. That was amazing! I enjoyed that so much. Everything was great, I worked in the cellar doing everything related to cellar work, helping and supporting them with anything they needed. Also tasting wines over there, I mean, I can still taste them! It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and through working for Tablas Creek, I was able to have such an incredible experience.
I was also able to spend some time in Burgundy. I even took a class in Beaune. I loved going to France so much that I repeated the experience and worked for Pierre Gaillard in Languedoc for harvest and that too was an amazing experience. Spending time in the southeast part of France, it reminded me a little bit of Paso Robles, you know? Less tight and rigid, less regulated, and less traditional. You have more room for exploring and creativity, too. So much great potential there, as there is here.
When you're not at the vineyard, what are you doing? On my days off, I like to bike. I live in Santa Margarita, so I can leave my house and bike for hundreds of miles without seeing cars. I also enjoy working on my bikes. Sailing has always been a passion of mine. My wife, Heidi, and I spend time working on our garden; I love doing that. We compliment each other very well in that area; she knows a lot and really, she's the one who started me on gardening.
Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing? Well, I'm from Chile, so I love empanadas! To me, empanadas are traditional and a staple. It was a staple in my house every Sunday. We would have empanadas and red wine, most likely a Chilean Cabernet. I love Chilean wines. Old world producers coming from the southwestern part of Chile, with dry farmed vines. Old vine Carignan is very interesting to me. I've also seen Mission blends coming out and getting popular.
Finally, how do you define success? Success is all about happiness. If you have success and no happiness, I think you've gone nowhere. Stability is important, too. Stability with your family, friends, and yourself. I don't see success from a monetary aspect, it's all about what makes you happy!