Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes

What do regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have in common? They've all got soils that are variously described as chalky, decomposed limestone, and calcareous. In chemical terms, all are high in calcium carbonate, the basic building block of marine life.

So too does much of the Paso Robles AVA, particularly the sub-AVAs of the Adelaida District, Willow Creek District, Templeton Gap, El Pomar, and Santa Margarita Ranch. In all these regions, if you find a road cut, the rocks will be chalky and white, and if you dig into them you'll find marine fossils, from fish scales to oyster shells to whale bones. Yes, ten million years ago, our part of Paso Robles was under the Pacific Ocean. This makes our land, in geologic terms, relatively young. When they make their way to the surface, the rocks are creamy white and surprisingly lightweight:

Calcareous Soil on Scruffy Hill

What Are Calcareous Soils?
Calcareous soils are formed from the crushed up and decayed shells and bones of sea creatures. These layers settle down to the bottom of shallow oceans and, depending on how much heat and pressure they're subjected to, can be as soft as talc or chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Of course, in order for plants to be able to access the calcium carbonate, it needs to be friable: soft enough for roots to penetrate. This means that even when you hear about a region having "limestone soils" the value to the plants isn't in the limestone itself, but in areas where the limestone has decayed into smaller particles.

From a grapevine's perspective, it doesn't really matter if the calcareous soils come from the erosion of limestone (as in Burgundy) or whether they never quite got heated and compressed enough to become rock (as in Paso Robles). The net impact is the same. There are four principal reasons why these soils are so often good for wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.

Benefit 1: Water Retention & Drainage
Calcium-rich clay soils like those that we have here have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines. Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots. But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

The porosity of our soils mean that they act like a sponge, absorbing the rainfall that comes in the winter and spring months and holding it for the vines to access during the growing season. We've done backhoe cuts in late summer, after it hasn't rained for several months, and while the top few feet of soil are dry, there's moisture in the layers six feet down and more.

At the same time, we never see water pooling around the vines. Part of that is that our whole property is hilly. But hillside vineyards in other regions still end up with standing water at the bottoms of the hills. We never do. That balance of water retention and drainage is ideal, and it allows us to dry-farm in the summer months of what is essentially a desert climate. 

Benefit 2: Higher Acids at Harvest
We've had anecdotal evidence of calcium-rich soils producing wines with more freshness for years. At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted last decade, producers from non-calcareous regions (from Napa to the Sierra Foothills to vineyards in eastern Paso Robles with alluvial soils) consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us from calcareous regions like west Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. But the chemistry of why this was the case has only become clear in recent years. 

It appears that the key nutrient here is potassium, which is central to the processes by which grapevines lower acidity in berries as fruit ripens. High calcium levels displace potassium in the soils, inhibiting this chemical process and leaving more acidity at any given sugar level. Of course, this can be a challenge. I have friends in other parts of Paso Robles whose pH readings are so low at the sugar levels that we like to pick at (say, 22-24° Brix) that they have no choice but to wait for higher sugars. This can produce wines that carry massive levels of alcohol. But in moderation, it's a wonderful thing. I'm grateful that (unlike in many California regions) we can let malolactic fermentation proceed naturally, producing a creamy mouthfeel without unpleasantly high alcohol levels. In much of California, the higher harvest pH readings mean that they have no choice but to stop the malolactic bacteria from working to preserve the sharper malic acids in the finished wines, for balance. 

Tablas Creek - calcareous rock cut
The calcium-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer

Benefit 3: Root System and Vine Development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems. This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil. It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable. They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives. This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output. Calcareous clay's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces in which water can be stored. In addition, the softness of these soils means that as they dry out, they shrink, creating fissures through which roots penetrate to where more residual moisture can be found. As they get wet, they expand again, opening up yet more terrain for the vines' roots to access. This process repeats itself annually. In our vineyard we've routinely found grapevine roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

Benefit 4: Disease Resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries. Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion. However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

Where Are California's Calcareous Soils?
When my dad and the Perrin brothers were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of three main criteria they were looking to satisfy (the others were sun/heat/cooling and rainfall). But they quickly realized that soils like these are rare in California, except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The portion of this this area that is on the western slope of the coastal mountain ranges is too cold to ripen most Rhone varieties. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are home to the state's largest exposed calcareous layers, and it's largely because of this that in 1989 we bought property here.

There's a great story about how they went about finding soils. As they tell it, they decided that it was a lot cheaper and faster to look at road cuts than to hire backhoes and dig their own. They looked for the better part of four years around California without finding soils that excited them. Until they were driving along Peachy Canyon Road one afternoon in 1989, saw one of the many switchbacks where CalTrans had dug into the hillside to make the roadbed, and pulled over to see if the white rocks that they noticed were really what they'd been searching for. The composition looked right, the fossils looked right, and they then brought over a French geologist to confirm their impressions. They put in an offer on the property where we are now later that year.

We've thought since the beginning that finding calcareous soils would be a key to making great wines. Learning the science behind why only underscores the importance that the vineyard's founders put on this search.

Tablas Creek - Calcareous Rocks and Vines

Further Reading:
Thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at Cal Poly, for pointing me in the right direction on some of the trickier geology questions. See also:


Why we're going to be a better business after this Coronavirus shutdown

Last week, I made a small appearance in Eric Asimov's excellent assessment of how the various disruptions caused by the Coronavirus are impacting American wine producers. If you haven't read For American Wine Producers, Fear, Uncertainty and Hope go read it now. OK, welcome back.

New_York_Times_Jason_Haas_Apr10_2020
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The article included a photo (right) from Eric’s last visit to Tablas Creek, in the depths of the 2012-2016 drought. The 2015 article that resulted noted that at Tablas Creek, "the vineyard has managed to thrive despite the drought." And that's true. We had a string of excellent harvests as the drought really took hold, with each of 2014, 2015 and 2016 producing memorable wines across three different vintage signatures.

Re-reading the article today, I don't think I emphasized to Eric enough that we made it through that drought not principally because of our location (though we do get more rain here than much of the Central Coast, thanks to our location at altitude, in the Santa Lucia foothills, and relatively close to the Pacific) but because of a series of extraordinary actions we took to reduce our demand for water.

These included rethinking how we planted new vineyard (much more widely spaced) so that we could set them up for success dry-farmed. It included new, deeper-rooting rootstocks. It included micro-emitters for frost protection. And it included investing in cover crops and a much larger animal flock. The flock and cover crop together increase our soil’s carbon content, which allows it to hold more moisture. In Paso Robles, we don’t have a water table at root-available depth, and it doesn’t rain for six months every year. The soil is our reservoir, if we allow it to be. [For a deep dive into how our farming changed during the drought, check out my 3-part series Dry Farming in California's Drought.]

Why mention this now? While the outside shock is different, we’re in the middle of another shock right now that is forcing us to rethink how we operate. Coronavirus is a demand shock rather than a supply shock like a drought, but we’re having to reinvent ourselves as a business the way we did as a farm last decade.

Without many of the ways we’ve always interacted with customers (tasting room, events, festivals) we’re investing in new technology. The first things we rolled out utilize the live interactive capabilities of our social media platforms. I've been hosting Instagram Live broadcasts every Wednesday at noon PDT, inviting a guest to dive into the world of Tablas Creek. Neil has started hosting weekly tastings on Facebook Live, also with a guest, of two wines each Friday at 5pm PDT. Our tasting room has launched virtual Zoom tastings, where customers can choose a pre-made pack of half-bottles, order wines they want to open and discuss, or just taste through wines they have on hand, led by one of our senior tasting room team members. We've ramped up our investment in video; we've been adding a deep-dive into a recently released wine to our Chelsea and the Shepherd series each week, and now have a YouTube channel to collect them all.

What do all of these initiatives have in common? We're meeting customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to us. We didn't really have a choice; with our tasting room and restaurants closed, and events canceled both here at the winery and around the country, the typical avenues through which we'd interact with our customers are unavailable. But I'm convinced that many or most of these new initiatives will remain valuable enough to keep doing them even once we can reopen our tasting room, resume pouring at festivals and reschedule those restaurant wine dinners that we'd planned to host this spring. After all, we’d discussed doing, or even made starts on, many of these new initiatives before the arrival of Coronavirus, but this crisis made us attack these new programs with urgency.

All of these new initiatives have in common that they are location-independent. Of course, when you're stuck in your house, it doesn't really matter whether Tablas Creek is 30 miles away or 3000. But I'm convinced that the lessons we're learning will allow us to better connect with customers near and far. Even our local customers weren’t making weekly trips to visit us. What's more, the majority of our current customers and an even larger share of our potential customers don't live an easy drive from Paso Robles. In the periodic surveys we do to former wine club members, we always see responses that they weren't able to take advantage of the events we offered because of their distance from Paso Robles. We think of limitations like that as constant, but they're really not. We weren't utilizing the tools we had to offer opportunities to learn about and become more connected to what we're doing. But we are now.

Jason on video chat with Sadie

After the drought ended, we realized that the new things we’d learned to do in the vineyard led to healthier vines, better fruit, and wines with more character even when they weren’t existentially necessary. I don’t think it’s coincidence that 2017-2019 is maybe our best-ever run.

I think we're going to see something similar here. Just as we emerged from the drought better farmers, so too will we come out of this crisis a stronger business and industry.


In the winter, west Paso Robles is a rain forest. In the summer, it's a desert.

I was struck recently by a headline posted recently by a Seattle-dwelling friend of mine: Seattle just broke a 122-year-old record for rain. The total rainfall for this famously rainy city between October 2016 and April 2017? 44.67".

Here at Tablas Creek, over the same period, we've received 41.57" of rain.  No, you aren't reading that wrong. The rainfall we've received this past winter would be one of the wettest winters ever recorded in Seattle.  So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the below landscape (taken down near our creek a few months ago) could be straight out of the Pacific Northwest:

Lichen draped oaks

And while 2016-17 was quite a wet winter here, winters like it aren't all that rare.  Looking just over the last 20 years, this is the fifth winter that our weather station recorded 37" or more of rainfall here: 

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

Although the winter of 2016-17 was an outlier, our average rainfall here at the vineyard (25") is still pretty wet.  Other areas that average 25" of rain include lots of places in the upper Midwest, Texas, and northern California.  Also Chateauneuf du Pape, Alsace, and Burgundy.  What makes our rainfall here extraordinary is that almost all of our rain comes in a six-month period between November and April.  Take a look at our average rainfall by month at the vineyard:

Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

During the six wet months, we get 92% of our annual rainfall and average 3.82" of rain per month.  If we were to extrapolate this to an annual basis, that's nearly 46" of rain, which you see in climates like New York City, Boston, Columbia MO, and Wilmington NC.  Seattle, by contrast, receives 38" per year.

If you look on the flip side at our six dry months, we average 0.35" of rain per month May-October.  On an annual basis, that's 4.14", slightly less than the city of Las Vegas (5") and slightly more than Lake Havasu, AZ (3.8").

How unusual is this rainfall distribution for a wine region?  Extremely.  Take a look at three regions in Europe.  First, Dijon, in the heart of Burgundy, which receives nearly the same amount of rainfall on an annual basis as we do, but with an almost-equal distribution each month (note that these graphs are all from the fascinating site climate-data.org, on which you can find similar information for thousands of locations around the globe):

Climate-graph-dijon

Maybe a more Mediterranean region like Tuscany?  The city of Florence sees about the same amount of rain we receive on an annual basis, and a distribution with slightly drier summers than winters, but nothing close to the degree we see here:

Climate-graph-florence

Chateauneuf du Pape is a better match still, though their two rainiest months are September-October:

Climate-graph-chateauneuf

In order to find an Old World rainfall distribution similar to ours, you have to go all the way into the Eastern Mediterranean. The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon would be a great match, if they only received 175% as much rain as they do:

Climate-grap-bekaah

OK, that was a lot of graphs.  But it's important, I think, if you're trying to wrap your head around the climate here in west Paso Robles, to pay just as much attention to the winters (wet) and nights (cold) as one does to the dry, hot summer days.  For visitors who come during the summer, the heat and dry landscape can make the cool green hillsides of winter seem like a mirage.  But they are two facets of this same climate: a climate in which massive oak trees grow draped with lichen, and in which dry-farmed grapevines can reach down 20 feet into limestone clay to pull out enough moisture to survive through five months of negligible precipitation.  As a bonus, it rarely rains during the harvest season, when the grapes are vulnerable.

Desert in the summer, and rain forest in the winter?  We'll take it. Even if it is hard to believe.


One last gasp of winter amid spring's progress

Over the last week, we've seen what feels like the last gasp of winter.  Two storms have come through, the first dropping about an inch and a half of rain (a lot for April; our long-term average for the entire month is just 1.86") and a couple more are expected this and next week. We've had several other days with significant cloud cover, and two nights where we got down around freezing, though we think we escaped any damage to the new growth.  At the same time, the days are lengthening and the sun is warm, the vines have all come out of dormancy, and we're getting the cover crop turned under where the animals weren't able to do it for us. It's a point in time where the view in any given vineyard block changes daily.  A few photos will give you a sense.  First, one taken on Friday 4/7, during our rainy day, with the cover crop and vines a mix of winter green/brown and summer gold/green:

Misty April 2017

In the areas where the animals last grazed in February (or earlier) the grasses are knee-high and starting to turn gold. This view, with high grass and new growth, is going to be short-lived, as we need to bring the cover crop under control for a variety of reasons.  The winter's heavy rain and its associated risk of erosion are largely in the rear-view mirror. With our always-dry summer on its way, we want to eliminate the vines' competition for the soil's available water. Returning the cover crop to the soil renews the earth's fertility and provides nutrients for the vines to draw on the rest of the year. Finally, it's important to knock down the cover crop to allow the cooler air at the surface to drain downhill rather than having it pool around the vines and cause frost damage. From the head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block yesterday:

Scruffy Hill April 2017 2

Within a few weeks, all this growth will be turned under and decomposing in the topsoil, while the vines begin their trek toward harvest.  Last April 27th, I spent a morning taking photos on Scruffy Hill.  The difference from the photo above is dramatic, but not likely much different from what you'll see in two weeks:

Scruffy long view

The April rainfall pushed us over 40" and made this winter our second-rainiest ever.  We still have a chance to catch 2004-5, which at 42.85" is our wettest since we installed our weather station in 1996:

Rainfall by winter as of 2017

And yes, if you were wondering, the 2017 vintage is underway. The Grenache vines on Scruffy Hill already have tiny flower clusters forming:

Flower clusters April 2017

I'm sure we'll be sharing many photos in coming weeks and months of the new growth and the 2017 growing season. This is where it all begins.


January set the table for a wet winter. February brought us home.

At the end of January, I wrote a blog announcing that January 2017 had become our wettest month ever.  But at that time, we were only at 23.88" for the rain year (July-June), which while better than in recent years was still below our 20-year average, albeit with nearly half the rainy season still to come. I concluded that while we were very happy with what we'd received so far, "we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in".

February continued the winter's remarkable attack on our long-term drought, adding another 12.56" of rain to the tally, roughly 250% of what we'd get in an average February. By month:

Winter Rainfall 2016-17 March

How rare are back-to-back 10+ inch rain months?  Since our weather station went in during the summer of 1996, this is the first time.  In fact, we've only once before had two 10+ inch months in a single rain season: December of 2010 and March of 2011.  Otherwise, the closest we've come to these back-to-back wet months was a 13.5" month in December of 2004 followed by a 7.5" month in January of 2005, en route to our wettest-ever year at 42.85".  At 38.41" winter-to-date, we're not far from that now:

Winter Rainfall 1996-2017

You can see the impact of the 30" inches we've received (!) in 2017 in ways both more and less obvious. The vineyard is wet, with springs welling out of many of our hillsides. Las Tablas Creek is running cheerfully through its valley, for the first time since spring of 2012:

Tablas Creek Valley

The lake, which the previous owners made by damming up the creek, which we have visions of tapping to help with our frost protection in the spring, is full for the first time since 2011, complete with ducks:

Lake Ramage

The drought is significantly ameliorated, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In fact, San Luis Obispo County is almost entirely free of drought, upgraded to the lowest "abnormally dry" classification, when at the beginning of the fall it was split between "severe drought", "extreme drought", and "exceptional drought":

Drought monitor changes - v2

So, are we truly out of the woods? I wouldn't go that far. There are still enormous pressures on groundwater. While out here aquifers recharge quickly, compared to most other California regions, it's still early to declare us free from worry. I know that we're going be as careful as ever in how we develop our vineyard. The water in the ground will certainly give the head-trained, dry-farmed vines we're planting this winter on our new property an easier go of it. And we're unlikely to need to irrigate even the close-spaced established blocks this growing season. That's all good. But this year's wet winter doesn't change the likelihood that our climate is going to be gradually getting warmer and drier with climate change.

While we're grateful for all this water, we've also been happy to have the sun in recent days. The ground is so saturated, and so soft, that until the last 10 days or so it's been impossible to get into the vineyard to prune. We're still behind, but making good progress, and feel confident that we'll get everything done before budbreak.  I like this panoramic shot, taken between two Mourvedre rows where our crew left off at lunchtime: pruned, uphill on the left, and as-yet-unpruned, downhill on the right. Click on it to expand:

Pruned Unpruned Panorama

About that budbreak. At this time last year, we'd already seen budbreak in several of our early-sprouting grape varieties. This year, we've been having frosty mornings for most of the last two weeks, which combined with the water in the soil, seem to be convincing the vines to stay dormant a bit longer.  It seems likely that we're going to be back to a more normal start time to the growing season -- late March or early April -- rather than the exceptionally early beginning that we've seen the past few years. That is comforting. But as to whether it insulates us from a damaging frost, we'll have to see.  We've been lucky to avoid frosts these last few years, despite the early onset to the growing season. But the last two years which produced bad frost events (2009 and 2011) both saw late budbreak, in April rather than March.

Is it possible that a cold spring, which leads to a late budbreak, may also put you more at risk for a post-budbreak frost? It doesn't seem far fetched. But we'll still take every dormant night that we can, and shorten the frost season as much as possible. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


January 2017 is Tablas Creek's wettest month ever

Sometime around 6:30 this morning, as the third of three powerful storms pushed through the Paso Robles area, our rain gauge for January passed 16.32" for the month and displaced February 1998 as the wettest single month in Tablas Creek's history.  Our running total (with much of this storm still to pass, and 9 days left in January) is now 17.17", more than triple the normal average for January, our wettest month:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 11.55.13 AM

For the year, we're at 23.88", just about at our 20-year average for the winter rainy season and about more than 90% of the way toward the 26" that old-timers quote as the long-term annual "normal" for our pocket of the Paso Robles Adelaida District. You can see, looking at the last 20 years, that we're still quite a ways from matching our wettest-ever rainy season, 2004-05:

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 12.25.48 PM

Of course, we're still only just past the midpoint of the normal winter rainy season. It seems like we'll get another inch or so in the aftermath of this storm, and February-June brings another 11.47" of rain on average.  That would put us up above 35" of rain, on par with the last two wet winters, 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Even with the recent rain, we've got a long way to go to climb out of the hole the last five years of drought has put us in. Between the winters of 2011/12 and 2015/16, we built up a deficit of more than 54" (compared to that 26" average).  So, it will take more than one wet winter to recover.  But between the reports of greatly increased capacity in our local reservoirs and the news that most of Northern California has been declared free of drought it's clear that the rain has made a measurable difference.

As for the vineyard, it's wet. Springs have sprouted in low-lying areas, and enough water has drained to cause Las Tablas Creek to flow during more than the immediate aftermath of a storm for the first time in four years.  You venture into the vineyard at peril of losing your footwear.

FullSizeRender-6

After this low pressure system passes through on Tuesday, we're forecast for a week or so of dry weather.  That's perfect.  It will allow the surface water to drain down into the limestone clay layers, and give the cover crop a week of sun.  And then the long-term forecast suggests a return to a wet pattern in early February.  That's perfect too.  At this point, we're feeling good about where we are.  Anything more at this point is gravy.


Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard: How Eliminating Surface Grasses Conserves Water

Over the course of about six weeks, the vineyard has gone from looking like:

Lush cover crop

To looking like:

Scruffy long view

This transformation takes place as the rainy season ends, and our focus shifts from encouraging a cover crop to hold the topsoil in place to making sure that the vines (rather than the cover crops) get the bulk of the water that is stored in the absorbent limestone-rich soils.  Think of each plant that's growing in a given plot of land as like a wick, with its roots delving into the soil for available moisture.  If we had overabundant water, we might want to leave some surface weeds to keep levels more reasonable.  Instead, in our California climate, eliminating competition from grasses and other surface plants is an essential part of our ability to dry farm.  Tilling in the cover crop also allows the insects and microorganisms in the soil to start breaking down the surface biomass accumulated during the winter growth into nutrients that the vines will draw from in the coming months.  Finally, the loosening of the soil creates an insulating layer at the surface that helps conserve the water deeper down.

The main tool we use to turn our cover crops under is the spader, shown in action below.  The row to the right has been mowed but not turned under, while the spader is chopping up the topsoil with a collection of tooth-like blades that penetrate deep into the topsoil:

Spader at work

The end result, when a whole block has been spaded, is a manicured surface from which weeds rarely re-sprout, like the head-trained Tannat block below:

Spaded area in Tannat

We're only about 30% done with turning the cover crop under, and the work will continue for another month. The one section that we have finished is Scruffy Hill, and it looks amazing.  Two shots follow, beginning with the fully leafed out Grenache block, looking down over the less-advanced Mourvedre vines below:

Scruffy Grenache vine

And a view that shows you a close-up of the soils. Tilling in the surface weeds allows you to see just how calcareous the soils are:

Scruffy soil view

Pretty soon, the whole vineyard will look like this, just in time for summer.


Harvesting under the stars

By: Lauren Phelps

I arrived at the vineyard today at 4:00 AM in the crisp morning air to photograph the "night harvest" of one of our last blocks of Mourvedre.  Our crew used only head-lamps and the lights from the tractors to harvest which was challenging to photograph and made for some very interesting and rewarding shots.  

Group Tractor Row

Row Pick

Toss_cube

I found our 17-person harvest crew deep in the vineyard at a newly planted block of head-trained, dry-farmed Mourvedre on the parcel we call Cross-hairs. This block was part of an experiment that we're excited about, using some very old-fashioned, deep-rooting rootstocks in high stress parts of the vineyard.

Head Trained Sunrise

This block of about 3 acres (there are also 3 acres of Grenache) was planted in 2013 and is now on its third harvest (in vineyard jargon, "third-leaf"), which is the first year you expect to pick any fruit, though only a small amount even in the best of situations, which 2015 has not been.  Given the drought and our low yields overall this harvest, we were pleased that the crew was able to pick about 3/4 of a ton. The quality looks excellent!

Leaf_cube

Just as the crew was finishing up the sun began to rise over the mountains.  What a treat!

Fruit In

This is our third year harvesting in the very early morning.  Night harvesting is great for the fruit; picking them at lower temperature protects them from oxidation and allows the fermentation to start more gradually and predictably.  It's also better for our harvest crew than picking in the heat of mid-day.

I absolutely love getting out into the vineyard for these photo excursions; I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on-site documenting an ancient, rarely seen event.  And it's true, it is not very often that we get an in-depth look into the process of harvesting, especially in the dark.  I feel honored to witness and become a part the crew that is responsible for hand-harvesting the fruit that will soon become the next vintage of Tablas Creek wine.


Harvest 2015 update: just over 15% completed & yields are looking low

By: Lauren Phelps

In the cellar, things are in full-gear!

Sorting Tablas_Cube

According to veteran Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi harvest is already over 15% completed.  As of August 29th, we have worked with 65.82 tons of fruit.

Upright with Syrah_cube

The 1700 gallon French oak upright fermenters are all full fermenting Syrah for the 2015 Patelin de Tablas!

Harvest Sign First Estate_cube

Our first estate grapes were harvested on August 26th when we brought in about 3 tons of Viognier.  According to Viticulturist Levi Glenn, the estate Viognier yields appear down at least 50% due to the drought however, both acids and PH look great.

Mavis_cube

Levi's dog Mavis, vineyard dog extraordinaire, conducts a rigorous "lab test" of a bin of Viognier.

Although estate Viognier yields look low, Levi explains that "it's really more of a mixed bag.  Mourvedre and Roussanne both look a bit higher than normal".  In general, we're thrilled with the quality of fruit and a bit concerned since yields remind us of frost reduced years in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  We're waiting until we've harvested more from the estate to draw any firm conclusions.


Did 2.6" of rain in July really just happen?

Yesterday, we hosted a seminar on dry-farming.  In the rain.  In Paso Robles.  In July.

Levi lecturing

And it wasn't just a little rain, either.  As we were talking about how we've been working to plant increasing acres of vines without any irrigation infrastructure, and how we've been weaning even our established vines off of needing regular water, we were in the process of accumulating more rain -- seven times more rain -- than Paso Robles had received in any July day in its history.  In fact, we received four times more rain yesterday than Paso Robles has ever received in an entire month of July before.

Of course, July is the driest month of the year in Paso Robles, averaging less than 0.2" of rain for the month.  But residents of other parts of the country may not realize just how unusual summer rain is in the Central Coast of California.  Maybe a graph will help (from the useful site climate-data.org):

Climate-graph-paso

The unusual storm was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Dolores, which instead of remaining offshore or moving inland toward Phoenix (both more common paths for Pacific ex-hurricanes) wandered slowly and more or less directly north up California's coast, bringing unusually hot, moisture-laden air to parts of the state where humidity is almost totally foreign.  This moist, unstable air spurred a series of thunderstorms (themselves rare in this area) whose path took them directly over Paso Robles.  The town recorded 3.55", the highest total in the county and more than a quarter of the average annual rainfall the city can expect to receive.  It's also more than the town averages in any month during the year; for those of you who like me need a translation from the metric, 3.55" is more or less 90mm... about 10% more than Paso Robles receives on average in January, its wettest month.  We saw a little less rain out here than they did in town, but at 2.6" we still received more than we did all but two months (December and February) this past winter.

Given how much rain we received, and how fast it came down, you might wonder how the vineyard fared. It came through with flying colors. We rarely see much erosion here, due to the porosity of the clay-limestone bedrock, and we didn't see any in the vineyard. The little we saw was confined to a few vineyard tracks, where the occasional tractor traffic compresses the soils enough that water runs down rather than soaking in. From this afternoon:

Minor erosion

We don't anticipate any serious negative consequences from the rain. After a last round of showers and thunderstorms that are forecast to blow through this evening, it's supposed to dry out. It looks like we'll have a few sunny, breezy, relatively cool, low humidity days, and then it will warm up to normal for the season (highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with virtually no humidity).  This should serve to dry out the surface layer of the soil, and prevent too many weed seeds from germinating.  Plus, both the low humidity and the warm days will serve to prevent mildew from becoming a problem.

On the positive side, this is a time of year when the vines are nearly all under some stress.  A dose of rain now helps alleviate this stress, and gives the vines the energy to make their final push toward ripeness.  And the amount of rain that we received was enough to get through the topsoil and replenish the moisture in at least the upper layers of the calcareous bedrock, which will provide a reservoir for the vines over the next couple of months.  You can see how rich and soft the soils look after the rain, and also how void of erosion channels they are even near the bottom of a steep hillside:

Brown dirt

If the rain had come a month later, with some grapes nearly ripe, we would worry that the water might dilute the flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split.  But now, with veraison barely started, that's not a risk.

It's worth remembering that most other wine regions, including the Rhone, see summer rain.  The same chart as above, for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, shows that while rain is a bit less common in the summer than in other seasons, it's hardly rare:

Avg rainfall CdP

So, we'll enjoy the unusual moisture in the air, and feel thankful that we got it now and not during harvest.  If this is a precursor to what is sounding likely to be a strong el nino winter, so much the better.  I'll leave you with one final photo, taken in the middle of yesterday's rain, and looking more like an impressionist painting than a summer Paso Robles landscape:

Mist and rain