Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on JancisRobinson.com.  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):


By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:


The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.

A Vertical Tasting of En Gobelet, 2007-2013

When we first made En Gobelet in 2007, it was driven by our feeling that the dry-farmed lots we tasted in our annual blind tastings shared a distinctive character, different from our trellised lots.  In my blog post from 2009 announcing the first vintage, I talked about these dry-farmed lots:

"they seem to share an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard. Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas). Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power. But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way."

The wine has always been a blend primarily of Grenache and Mourvedre, with a touch of Tannat to cut the perception of sweetness that both the primary grapes can have.  When, starting with the 2010 vintage, we got some head-trained Syrah and Counoise in production, we added those too.  Our largest head-trained block, from which most of our recent vintages have come, is called Scruffy Hill, and we've been interested in exploring how this might fare as a block-designate, so between 2010 and 2013 the core of the En Gobelet was a co-fermented lot from Scruffy Hill, with selective additions from elsewhere on the property.

While it started as a wine we made because we thought we tasted something interesting in the lots, with our increasing focus on dry farming and our plans to plant all 55 acres on our new property dry-farmed, we've also come to see our En Gobelet as an indication of our future.  In celebration, we decided to look back today at the six vintages of En Gobelet we've bottled so far, and I thought it would be fun to share my notes.  The lineup:

En Gobelets

  • 2007 En Gobelet (48% Mourvedre, 47% Grenache, 5% Tannat): The nose is rich, meaty, and still primary, with lots of ripe red fruit and an appealing touch of mint. A touch of alcohol showed at the (nearly room) temperature at which we tasted it.  A slightly caramelized tone to the sweetness of the fruit is the only sign of age. On the palate, it is rich, lush and chocolaty, brought back to earth with firm tannins like coffee grounds at the end of a Turkish coffee. There's a great texture to the finish, with a powdered sugar character to the tannins and lingering flavors of dark plum.
  • [Note that we didn't make an En Gobelet in 2008 because we didn't taste enough distinction between the dry-farmed, head-trained lots and the rest of the cellar.]
  • 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A remarkably chalky nose, with some menthol and kirsch. On the palate, an initial impression of balsamic-marinated cherries is quickly overtaken by some massive tannins.  The finish is actually gentler than it was in the back-palate, with a creamy minerality and flavors of milk chocolate.  Still very, very young,
  • 2010 En Gobelet (37% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 13% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Chelsea's comment, which I agreed with completely, was that this wine "smelled more like Tablas Creek" than the previous two vintages.  There was more fruit in evidence in the nose -- blueberries, we thought -- and a minty, cool, pine forest savoriness characteristic of the 2010 vintage.  The mouth is vibrant with flavors of plum skin, juniper, a creamy, chalky texture and a little saltiness coming out on the finish.  This is really good, and going to get better.  Patience.
  • 2011 En Gobelet (29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): The most appealing nose yet, dark with soy marinade, wild strawberry, and roasted meat.  The least rustic of the noses, surprising since we'd attributed that character to the Tannat, and at 26% it is the most Tannat we've ever had in the wine.  The mouth is defined by its texture more than its flavors: creamy, chalky, savory and salty.  The flavors of loam and new leather linger on the finish.  My favorite wine of the tasting, for right now, and it's clearly got a long, interesting life ahead.
  • 2012 En Gobelet (63% Grenache, 12% Mourvedre, 11% Syrah, 8% Counoise, 6% Tannat): Notably lighter in color, unsurprising given the predominance of Grenache in 2012.  It smells like Grenache, too, with red cherry, watermelon rind, orange peel and baking spices. There's something deeper lurking on the nose, too, with time: like a clove-studded orange and baker's chocolate. The mouth is full of high-toned fruit, lots of fresh strawberry, then firming up and turning darker on the finish, with a salty marinade character and something leafy. Not quite minty.  Maybe shiso? Complex and cohesive, if still young.
  • 2013 En Gobelet (34% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre, 19% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 5% Tannat): Just bottled a few weeks ago, and the nose still shows some shyness from that, but the aromas of mint, cherry, strawberry and soy come out with time. The mouth is richer than the 2012, but similarly cohesive and complex, with red fruit held in check by something herby.  Maybe thyme? Lots of pepper, too, which Chelsea nailed as pink peppercorn.  Nice acids and some youthful tannins.  Obviously young, but going to a good place.  Will go out this fall to wine club members.

A few concluding thoughts:

We preferred the more recent vintages to the first couple of years.  There are several reasons why this might be the case.  The vines were older, with deeper roots.  Starting in 2010 we were sourcing the majority of the wine from the hillside vineyards of Scruffy hill rather than the low-lying areas that had formerly been rootstock fields.  The more recent vintages include Syrah and (in most cases) Counoise, which add a coolness and a vibrancy to the wines.  But in tasting the wines now, I think it might be ripeness as much as any of the other factors.  The first two vintages come across as a little over the top. At 15% and 14.5% alcohol respectively, the 2007 and 2009 were higher in alcohol than the 2011 (13.9%), 2012 (14.2%) and 2013 (14.0%).  The relative restraint of the recent vintages seems to play well with the dark savoriness of the wine.  Of course, the 2010, which was also 14.5%, tastes more like the later vintages than the earlier ones.

Despite the evolution in style and the often-varied compositions, there were recognizable currents that ran through all the wines.  The wines were all more savory than fruity, perhaps because of the Tannat component.  They all had a chalky texture and a salty finish, perhaps because of the necessarily deep root systems of all dry-farmed vines.  And they all felt like they could go out another decade easily, still fresh and vibrant even at the first vintages.

If this is what our future looks like, I'll take it.

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.

Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site climate-data.org) shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:


Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.

Photo essay: head-trained, dry-farmed Grenache on Scruffy Hill

Over recent years, we've become more and more convinced that dry farming is perhaps our most powerful tool in making wines that express their place.  I wrote about this in detail in 2010, and since then most of our new plantings have been very traditional: head-trained, dry-farmed and wide-spaced, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which scarce water can be pulled.  Of course, the vines have to grow an enormous root system to pull out this water, and it's probably of little surprise that the lots from these dry-farmed blocks are typically among the most compelling in our blind tastings.  The En Gobelet wine (read about the 2010 here) made entirely from these blocks is probably the clearest example.

We source the majority of our En Gobelet from a block we call Scruffy Hill, a relatively isolated dozen-acre planting on the south side of Tablas Creek, bordering Vineyard Drive. I spent some time this morning, under rare summer cloud cover, prowling around Scruffy Hill to see how the vines were faring after our second consecutive drought winter and our hot spell a few weeks back.  I was, as I consistently am, blown away by how healthy and vibrant the block looks, typically at least as vigorous as blocks that we plant in the trellised, densely planted configuration more commonly seen in California vineyards.  A few photos will illustrate.  First, an overview of the block, with head-trained vines retreating down the hill:


You can see how chalky the soils are even in the above photo. Here's a closeup:


The Grenache vines (which comprise a big piece of this block) are still pre-veraison, vibrantly green but fully sized, ready to change color in the next few weeks:


In my ramblings, I found exactly two purple berries.  One is below, presaging the coming transformation:


One of the advantages of head training is that the weight of the growing clusters pulls down on the canes of upright-growing grape varieties like Grenache, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew.  For the same reason, it's not a great technique for more horizontal-growing varieties like Syrah.  And even when the canes have been pulled down, like in the vine below, the leaves still sit above them and offer shade.  I didn't see a single sunburned berry in my explorations.


One more photo will give you a sense of the whole picture at this deceptively quiet juncture in the ripening cycle:


The transformation that will take place over the next few weeks will change the look and feel of the vineyard dramatically.  But for now, things look just great.

Biodynamics and dry-farming: repairing the failings of "modern" viticulture

Week before last, I had the privilege of representing Tablas Creek at the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays.  This event (which I wrote about a few months back in my post 5 great events for food&wine lovers) was as usual a treat, with unexpectedly warm weather, about 175 attendees at our session and a wonderful culminating gala dinner that was probably the best meal I've seen the Ahwahnee dining room turn out.  Each attending winery is expected to present a seminar, with the topic of their choosing, and I spoke about the great 2007 vintage in the Rhone and in Paso Robles, and showed our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, as well as the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape red and white from 2007.

One of the pleasures of this great event is the opportunity to hear the presentations of the other speakers.  At most wine festivals, talks and tastings happen simultaneously, but the leisurely pace of the Vintners' Holidays allows the attendees to sit in on the other speakers' talks.  I was followed by John Williams, the winemaker and proprietor of Frog's Leap, who chose the intriguing topic "The Worst Wine Tasting Ever: A Retrospective Tasting & Discussion of Napa Valley’s Five Worst Years in the Last Twenty-Five Years".  He showed Frog's Leap Cabernet from vintages widely panned by the critics: 1988, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2003 [ed. note: the original version of this article mistakenly listed 1990 rather than 1988].  The older wines were very pretty, and John made the point that what often makes a Cabernet appealing when young (lush fruit, soft tannins, low acidity) don't necessarily carry through in an appealing way as that wine ages, while some of the characteristics of "lesser" vintages (particularly higher tannin levels and higher acidity) can actually allow a wine to age gracefully.  Of course, a wine needs a certain level of concentration to age whatever its other characteristics, and it seems to me that this flaw is one that never gets better with time.

But apart from John's point about the ageability of "lesser" vintages -- a point on which he convinced me -- what I took away from his presentation was his inspiringly full-throated defense of traditional viticulture.  Frog's Leap has been farming organically for more than two decades, and biodynamically for roughly a decade.  What's more, they dry farm every acre they control, use exclusively native yeasts in their winemaking, and value balance over power.  Why?  His argument went more or less like this:

Grapevines, like most other plants and animals, are principally concerned with reproduction.  It is in their interest to get their fruit ripe, because then the fruit tastes good enough that birds will choose to eat their berries and spread their seeds more widely than those of the plants they're competing with.  How does it know what the season is, and what it has to do to get its fruit ripe?  It measures the angle of the sun, the amount of water in the soil, the actions of the other plants and the pheromones of the insects in its ecosystem.  But what might be termed "modern" viticulture (the use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, even aggressive crop-thinning and canopy management) has divorced a grapevine from its environment and therefore confused its natural processes, leading to grapes that are over-sugared and under-flavored at ripeness.

John used the analogy of a tomato.  A modern grocery store tomato is grown hydroponically, with fertilizer and water given at regular intervals.  When you get it home, it has very little flavor, so you let it get riper and riper on your windowsill.  It does continue to accumulate sugar, but while it may get as sweet or sweeter, it won't ever have the intensity of flavor and the balance of sweetness and acidity of a tomato grown to ripeness in real dirt in your back yard.  And too many grapevines in California are grown in conditions that are effectively hydroponic thanks to regular irrigation.  Of course, there are parts of the state where unirrigated viticulture would be impossible.  But even in places like Napa Valley, whose mountain appellations receive something like 40 inches of water per year, irrigation is the norm.  And giving a grapevine regular water begins a self-perpetuating cycle.  The vine will grow more roots where there is water, and those where there is no water will wither.  Since irrigation is typically done on a schedule, sometimes as often as every week, nearly all this root growth is concentrated at the surface.  These roots can't get the minerals they need from the small cone of moisture under an irrigation line, so growers have to add fertilizer to the irrigation.  These roots are also sensors for plant and animal activity that vary with the seasons, but the topsoil of a modern vineyard is nearly devoid of life thanks to the actions of herbicides (for weed control) and pesticides (for insect control).  So grapevines continue to accumulate sugar but don't receive the signals that they rely on to move their grapes to ripeness.  To help accelerate ripening, it's normal for vineyard managers to begin to remove leaves in August, which further reduces a vine's sensory inputs.  The net result is grapes that have to be left on the vine longer for a grapevine to get the appropriate signals that they should ripen the seeds and produce the flavors winemakers want.

I hadn't heard this explanation before correlating irrigation and over-alcoholic wines.  But it makes good sense to me.  We've long been advocates of dry-farming and organic viticulture for their ability to stimulate grapevines to pull character of place out of the vineyard and give it to the grapes they produce.  And more and more I'm hearing people comment how remarkable it is that the alcohols in Tablas Creek's wines are a point or more lower than our neighbors, yet the wines have plenty of intensity and great balance.  Is the fact that we dry-farm a significant factor in this difference?  It seems likely to me.

Ladybug So how does a vineyard hope to restore balance?  Enter biodynamics.  Biodynamic farming gets a lot of press for being a little on the touchy-feely side, with homeopathic applications of micronutrients that are supposed to be implemented based on the lunar calendar.  But when John was asked about burying manure-filled cow horns (one of the most often noted biodynamic applications) he dismissed it as little more than a distraction.  The vast majority of biodynamics, he said, is the effort to restore a plant's natural abilities to sense and respond to a vibrant environment.  This includes restoring its enviroment first by eliminating chemical applications that destroy plant and animal life and then by building life back into the soil through composting, cover cropping and insect habitat creation.  These healthier soils are also better at retaining moisture.

Often, moments like this help me reaffirm the choices we've already made.  Occasionally, they suggest new directions.  We've been farming organically since we founded Tablas Creek in 1989.  We've dry-farmed most vintages, and set up our irrigation to mimic natural rainfall patterns in the years when we couldn't.  We plant a vibrant cover crop each winter, and Neil, Ryan, David and the rest of the vineyard team have been increasingly focused on creating habitats in unused parcels.  But it was just last year that we started farming 20 acres biodynamically.  I have always focused more on the homeopathic elements of biodynamics, and have been interested -- in a skeptical way -- to see what we found were the differences.  But after hearing John Williams speak, and after tasting several Frog's Leap wines that I found noteworthy for their balance and character over the three-day event, I think my position may be changing.  And I am more convinced than ever that dry-farming is perhaps the most important key to making wines of character, balance, and, yes, sustainability.

Creating a new wine: En Gobelet

Our model at Tablas Creek is pretty consistent from year to year.  We make our Esprit de Beaucastel (red and white) and Cotes de Tablas (red and white).  We make our Rosé.  We make somewhere between six and nine single varietal wines depending on what's compelling when we're doing our blending.  Some years we make a dessert wine or three.

Okay, maybe that doesn't sound very simple.  But practically speaking, it doesn't change much from year to year, or at least hasn't changed much since we introduced a relatively extensive lineup of single varietals in the 2002 vintage.  The specifics of which varietals to produce have been more or less dictated by the production levels of the vintage and what we taste when we're putting together our core blends.

One thing that we have not done is subdivide our vineyard and do vineyard block designates.  It's not that we don't believe that this might make for interesting wines; we would love to celebrate any block-level differences we learn about.  We do expect eventually to make a block-designate wine from the dry-farmed, head-pruned, west-facing eleven-acre block on the south side of Tablas Creek.  But we have not yet seen a distinctive character from a specific block that we can track from year to year.  Ask us again in a decade.

Head-pruned-mourvedre One experiment that has shown some promise has been our decision to plant small head-pruned blocks of vines in several of the flatter, lower-lying areas such as the Mourvedre block between the winery and Adelaida Road (visible at right).  We created several other head-pruned blocks in vineyard that we reclaimed from rootstock when we outsourced our nursery operation to NovaVine in 2004.  That effort accelerated when we planted Scruffy Hill (the vineyard block on the other side of Tablas Creek I mention above) in the winters of '05-'06 and '06-'07.  At this point, we have about eighteen acres of head-pruned vines, scattered here and there around the vineyard.

Head-pruning is appealing both for its simplicity and because it is traditional.  The Chateauneuf du Pape regulations which specify the rules for the appellation controllée dictate that all grape varieties except Syrah be head-pruned (taillé en gobelet; literally translated as "pruned in goblet form").  And in Paso Robles, too, the old vineyards are all head-pruned, largely Zinfandel but also Petite Sirah, Carignan and other California "heritage" varieties.  It's much less expensive to plant a vineyard this way, as you plant with less density and no posts, wires, irrigation lines, etc.  And the yields are controlled naturally, as dry-farmed, head-pruned vines rarely produce more than 2 or 3 tons per acre.  This natural yield control is why head-pruning is legislated in Chateauneuf du Pape. 

As we've had a chance to get some of these blocks into production, we're noticing they seem to share  an elegance and a complexity which is different from what we see in the rest of the vineyard.  Perhaps it's the areas where they are planted (generally lower-lying, deeper-soil areas).  Perhaps it's the age of the vines and a comparative lack of brute power.  But, whatever the reason, we believe that these lots show our terroir in a unique and powerful way.

We got the idea of putting several of these lots into one wine for our VINsider wine club last summer, as we remarked again and again on the character that they shared.  We chose to base the wine on Mourvedre and Grenache (which comprise most of our head-pruned blocks) but also added a splash of head-pruned Tannat which gives the resulting wine a little more smokiness and a little firmer finish.  We are calling it En Gobelet, after the French term for head-pruning.  We expect it to act like many Mourvedre-based wines, drinking well when young, then tightening up after 3-4 years in bottle before reopening for another 10 years or more as a mature wine.  A bottle of the wine will go out in the fall 2009 shipment.  The label for the wine is below.


Getting Ready to Plant "Scruffy Hill"

After a five-year hiatus in planting, we're getting ready to begin again, at the deliberate rate of 5 acres per year over the next five years.  This will allow us to gradually build our capacity from the around-16,000 case level we are now (on 80 acres) to the 22,000 case neighborhood (on 105 acres) we'd like to max out at.

What will be fun is that we're going to have available a new selection of vinifera clones (many of which weren't available during our key planting years of 1994, 1995, and 1997).

A view looking back across Tablas Creek from Scruffy Hill
A view looking back across Tablas Creek
from Scruffy Hill

We will begin the planting, this and next year, with the 10-acre section of land at the southeast corner of the property, on the far side of Tablas Creek, that we have named "Scruffy Hill" after its often unmowed appearance.  This beautiful piece of property was originally discussed as a house site, but with all the members of the family having decided to live in town, and the obvious suitability of the west-facing slopes for vines, we've decided to plant.

We are planning to plant the plot to Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, all dry-farmed and head-pruned, without even irrigation lines to get the young vines started.  In order to increase the likelihood of the vines surviving, we will plant quite sparsely (about 10' x 10') to allow the vines to make the most of the little available water.  The dry-farming will control our yields, once the vines get into production, around the 2 tons-per-acre level.

As we try to do whenever possible, we want to allow anyone who's interested to learn more about our vineyard and winemaking practices, and hopefully demystify wine a bit in the process.  We have scheduled a Vineyard Development Seminar for Saturday, January 21st (weather permitting).  The details:

January 21, 2006 10 a.m. (rain date January 28th)
Planting and Vineyard Development Seminar

In 2006, we will begin the planting of the remaining 30 acres we have available to us at Tablas Creek, at a pace of roughly 5 acres per year. The first section of the vineyard to be planted will be the section we call "Scruffy Hill" on the south side of Tablas Creek adjacent to Vineyard Drive. In this beautiful section of property we'll be planting head-pruned, dry-farmed Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise. Join us on Saturday, January 21st to help us put the vines in the ground! Neil Collins, Winemaker and Vineyard Manager, will lead attendees in some hands-on planting as well as a discussion of vineyard development issues including irrigation, vine spacing, rootstock selection, and more. We'll finish the morning with a field lunch either down by the creek or at the winery, depending on weather. The event is free for VINsiders and $20 for guests. Space is limited and reservations are required for this unique event; contact Nicole Getty at events@tablascreek.com or 805.237.1231 x39.

You can read a complete list of upcoming events, both at the winery and around the country, on our Web site.