Harvest 2019 Recap: What's Usually a Marathon Turns Out to Be a Sprint

Last Wednesday, as I was on the road heading to the (remarkable) New York Wine Experience, the cellar team brought in the last lot of grapes from the 2019 harvest, some head-trained Counoise from our Scruffy Hill block. This capped a 40-day sprint: our shortest harvest in 18 years, and longer only in our history than the tiny frost-reduced crop of 2001. That 40 days is a full two weeks shorter than our average this millennium. But unlike in some of the other attenuated harvests, we didn't have to pick because there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat. No, it was just that the consistently warm, sunny weather that we've seen since early August meant that everything was ready. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Cellar team with last pick of 2019

Because the weather never forced us to pause, the breakdown of our workflow was nearly constant. After a slow start the last week of August and first two weeks of September (after which we sat at only 10% complete) starting September 16th we picked nearly every day until the end of harvest. You can see steadiness of the vintage in the chart below (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Final Harvest Graph

Yields defy an easy explanation. We ended up down overall about 8% from 2018, but while overall we were almost exactly at our long-time average, the picture depends a lot on which grape you look at. I'll dive into that below. But what stood out to me was that although we had great rainfall last winter, and exceptional vine health all summer, we didn't see the high yields that typically come with that. The complete picture:

Grape 2019 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2018
Viognier 17.4 18.2 -4.4%
Marsanne 12.3 11.8 +4.2%
Grenache Blanc 28.3 43.6 -35.1%
Picpoul Blanc 8.6 9.1 -5.5%
Vermentino 24.7 17.9 +38.0%
Roussanne 46.1 32.6 +41.4%
Other whites 7.8 6.1 +27.9%
Total Whites 145.2 139.3 +4.2%
Grenache 51.4 74.3 -30.8%
Syrah 42.5 44.7 -4.9%
Mourvedre 49.6 64.4 -23.0%
Tannat 19.0 19.8 -4.0%
Counoise 20.0 16.0 +25.0%
Other reds 5.6 3.8 +47.4%
Total Reds 188.1 223.0 -15.7%
Total 333.3 362.3  -8.0%

Average yields ended up at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average. Other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages: 2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016. As to why we saw only average yields despite the ample rainfall that we saw last winter, I blame a handful of small things: we saw some shatter in our Grenache blocks due to cool weather at flowering; we decided that we'd been hanging too much crop on our Grenache Blanc and were more aggressive in thinning, and (the only one of these which is troubling) Mourvedre, which didn't suffer from shatter, still hung a small crop. We'll be spending some time in the slower season to come trying to come up with a program to reverse this development, as we've done successfully in recent years with Roussanne. Speaking of Roussanne, it's clear from the increased Roussanne crop that the health that we noticed all growing season in our Roussanne was reflected in the quantity we harvested. It was also reflected in the fact that we didn't need to make nearly as many passes through our Roussanne blocks. It's the first time in a while that we've had extra lines on our harvest chalkboard, as we picked 95 lots this year (20 fewer than 2018). And that's including our first-ever picks of Bourboulenc, Cinsaut, and Vaccarese, noted in all-caps and with extra stars on the board:

Finished 2019 Harvest Chalkboard

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62

You'll note that 2019's sugars saw a small decline from the past two years while the average pH maintained the level we were very happy with last year. The main culprit on the lower harvest sugars were Marsanne and Roussanne, both of which came in, on average, below 20° Brix. That's not a problem with Marsanne -- we typically love it around 12% alcohol -- but it suggests that we'll have a range of Roussannes, including those riper lots that are more likely to be appropriate for Esprit Blanc, and those that may be better suited for the Cotes Blanc or Patelin Blanc. I wouldn't be surprised to see both those wines with a higher than normal percentage of Roussanne in 2019.

The continued lower average pH is a great sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vineyard was under at harvest time.

I had a sense, from living here and evaluating what I felt week by week, that we were really looking at two distinct weather patterns: a fairly cool one that lasted until the end of July, and then a consistent, warm pattern that took over in early August and lasted until mid-October. And the degree days that we measured this 2019 growing season support that, more or less. The chart below shows the unusually chilly May, the moderate June and July, and then the warmer-than-n0rmal (but not scorching) August and September. Note that October's information is for the first 16 days, as we picked our last block on October 16th:

Degree Days 2019 vs Normal

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 40 days -- was our shortest since 2001. That's noteworthy enough. But just as unusual was the sequencing of the different grapes. The cool weather in May seems to have set back the early grapes somewhat. Viognier -- which started coming in September 7th -- and Vermentino, Syrah, and Grenache Blanc -- all of which saw their first estate picks September 16th -- were delayed about two weeks compared to our average this decade. This delay in our early grapes led me to conclude mistakenly that we were looking at a later-than-normal harvest. But the late grapes, which flower in June and do the bulk of their ripening in the August-September period where we saw ideal conditions, were actually picked early. We saw our first picks of Roussanne on September 6th and Counoise on September 12th, both three weeks or so before we'd normally expect them. Grenache Noir, which usually lags behind Syrah by a couple of weeks, came in right on its heels, just one day later this year. And we were totally done with Roussanne by October 7th, which is really unusual.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and his response was, "the ferments have been wonderfully slow and measured. It is early for me to say just what to expect from the wines themselves but the whites seem aromatic and quite showy, pretty and delicate wines. Reds have nice rich color and are solid in structure while yet being quite plush and rich in texture." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi added that it's "a vintage marked by balance." We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And the late-season sun shining through the presses make the afternoon warmth that much sweeter: 

Mourvedre in the press

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast). Meanwhile, we're putting the vineyard to bed, seeding cover crop, and getting the animals back into the vineyard, to clean up any second crop clusters still on the vines and start spreading manure in preparation for the rainy season. Even in years like this when there's no inclement weather during harvest, it's still a relief when everything is in tanks and barrels, and you just don't have to worry about rain, or frost, or anything else. Whenever winter feels like coming, we'll be ready. And that's something to celebrate, in and of itself.


What it Feels Like to Spend a Day in the Cellar During Harvest

The 2019 harvest will go down in our history as one of the most intense, compressed seasons ever. After a slow beginning, things ramped up the week of September 15th, and they really haven't stopped. We've picked at least 60 tons off of our estate each of the last four weeks, and suddenly, all that's left out there are little clean-up picks. We'll be done sometime this week.

I'll have a more detailed analysis of how the vintage compares to other recent years in my harvest recap blog either next week or the week after. But for now, what I wanted to do was give you a feel for what a day in the cellar feels like, not least because it's suddenly almost done. And harvest feels like that. You wait all year for it to begin, once it starts it feels like it will go on forever, and yet when the end comes, it comes suddenly, and marks the end of the intense camaraderie that comes with long hours, close quarters, and shared goals.

Our talented Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart chronicled one day in the cellar, October 8th, turning in his crook for his GoPro, adding a soundtrack and editing it all down to two minutes. Definitely turn up the volume on this one.

What did we pick that day? Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Grenache. But the sorting, destemming, and pressing of those lots wasn't all that was happening. We were filling barrels and digging out tanks of Grenache and Syrah harvested in previous weeks, punching down and pumping over a cellar full of wine, sampling vineyard lots to schedule upcoming picks, and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. And playing with the winery dogs, sharing one of Marci Collins' famous cellar lunches, keeping the espresso machine humming, and snacking on the leg of jamon in the lab, of course.

It was just one day, one long day, but also one pretty great day. 

Harvest Video October 8th 2019


The Winding Road to Tablas Creek: We Interview our 2019 Harvest Interns, Ryan Brennan and Adrian Garcia

By Ian Consoli

Every year Winemaker Neil Collins hand selects two eager individuals, usually just starting a career in wine, to join our cellar team for harvest and commence the activities of shoveling grape skins, sorting clusters, and washing presses, bins, and barrels. Cellar work is certainly glorified as a romantic, energetic, and gleeful experience in which a community bonds over the long hours and fermenting aromas that fill the cellars, and it is this; however, it's strenuous, with long hours and close quarters with your team. It takes a certain kind of individual to thrive in this environment day in and day out for one, two, even three months at a time. This year we found two of those individuals from opposite sides of the country with both direct and indirect paths to the Tablas Creek cellar. This is Ryan's and Adrian's story.

Wine Harvest Interns Staredown

Who are you?

Ryan Brennan 

Adrian Garcia

Where did you grow up?

R: I grew up mostly in Virginia. My family is from New England, my dad is military so we bounced around quite a bit, but my formative years were in Virginia.

A: I am from Cupertino, but not the city of Cupertino; I live up in the mountains kind of hidden away on Montebello road. I moved there when I was three and spent most of my life up there.

Wine Harvest Intern Happy RyanRyan Brennan smiles while working the sorting table

When and how did you get into wine?

R: I was a history and politics student in school and realized I'd rather make people happy than make people mad so I got out of politics before I even started. I ended up doing some organic farming work with a WOOFing program, which is a pretty cool program. I was in Sweden, my co-WOOFers and I were just WOOFing around doing some stuff and realized we could be making alcohol at the same time so we started fermenting things in our bathtub, with the farmer’s approval of course. We used apples and cherries and all sorts of fun things. We did grow grapes so that was my first exposure to the magic of making alcohol. I spent a little time in restaurants drinking more and tasting more after that.

A: I grew up around it. My dad's been working at Ridge Vineyards since he was 17.

Wine Harvest Intern Tank Hole Adrian   Adrian Garcia crawls out of the bottom of a tank

What experience did you have prior to Tablas Creek?

R: An opportunity opened up for me at a 3 acre vineyard in New Hampshire of all places. We made batches a little over 100 gallons and I thought that was huge. After that initial introduction a much better opportunity came up in Vermont with a winery that had just won the International Cold Climate Winery of the Year competition. Which it doesn’t sound impressive in California but for everywhere else where it gets cold and there are seasons, it’s pretty awesome. I figured if I could learn how to grow grapes and make wine an hour south of the Canadian border I could do it anywhere. After a little stint in Edna Valley I ended up here in Paso.

A: I officially started getting involved with winemaking when I was 18, straight out of high school, doing mostly vineyard work. I did some lab and vineyard work for Ridge Vineyards for a while then I started working in the cellar once I went to Fresno State. I’ve been in their cellar for about 2 years up until I came here.

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

R: I was in Vermont and I met Dani Archambeault, who used to work in the wine club at Tablas. She said some pretty nice things that got me excited about the Central Coast and the possibility of coming out this way.

A: I've kind of heard the name since a while back and thought Tablas sounded interesting. I started looked more into their farming and I'm like, this is pretty sick.

How did you end up working harvest with us?

R: I got Neil’s contact info from Dani and I just kept bothering him until I got a job.

A: The viticulturist back home, David Gates, asked me what I was going to do after college and I'm like, Mmm I’ll do some internships. Tablas Creek seem like a nice place. He tells me, well they're going to be here [Ridge Vineyards] next week doing a tour if you want to talk to them. That’s where I met Neil, asked if I could be an intern, and he said yes.

How often do you shower?

A: Every single day

R: Every day for my girlfriend.

How is harvest going?

R: Oh, it’s fine laughs

Wine Harvest Intern Working RyanRyan rakes out the leftover grape skins

We recently processed 51 tons in a day, what did you do when you got home that night?

R: I'll be honest with you it wasn't that hard, it was a fine day. We all work together really well. I mean a lot came in and we were on the table for a while sorting things out and running around, but the team works really well together. So I went home, had a beer and went to bed.

A: Same thing it wasn't that bad. It's pretty efficient here. I went home, chilled, listened to music and went to sleep.

What is your ultimate goal in cellar work?

R: This is a cellar rotation as far as I'm concerned. I spent my first couple years doing cellar work just because someone else needed to do it, but my main focus has been on vineyard work. The place I was working in Vermont, Lincoln Peak, was about 13 acres or so. While there I got to see how a small property like that allows you to get involved in all aspects of the production, so I’m looking at a similar idea down the road; a smaller place 13-15 acres max where you can get a lot of time outside and very little inside.

A: I dislike how people say the Central Valley can't produce great wine. It can, I just think if we planted varieties suited for warmer climates we would have greater success. In Madera, or Fresno, or Lodi it's super-hot during the summers, if you had maybe some Rhone and Spanish varieties, which are good for warmer climate, I think you can make some really great wine over there. It's my dream to prove it.

Wine Harvest Intern Tank AdrianAdrian in one of our wooden upright fermentation tanks

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere you wanted, where would you pick?

R: I don't know there's a lot back in Virginia I’d like to be a part of. Linden Vineyards is a pretty extraordinary place, it’s definitely one of the best if not the best places on the East Coast that make tremendous wine.

A: I have some aspirations to be the head winemaker at Ridge Vineyards because that's where I grew up and that’s where my dad has been working a lot so it would be cool to, you know, have the son of a cellar worker be the head boss.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

R: It's probably not technically the best one I've ever had, but in terms of the best experience drinking a wine... When you're in Sweden the swedes aren't too pretentious, they don't really care about the packaging, they don't care if its cork or screw-top, in this case it was a very high end organic boxed wine out of Argentina. I don't remember the label, but it was incredible wine, it went so well with what we were eating. A picnic table outside the greenhouse picking vegetables next to us for a salad, grilling stuff up on the grill, Midnight Sun, it was 11 and still sunny out. I mean that's the best wine I ever had and it came out of a box and bag. I’d also like to add the best single bottle I can name was a 2016 Stolo Syrah. It was a game changer for me. It tasted like liquid beef jerky and made me want to become a Syrah grower.

A: There is one pretty damn good bottle of wine that comes to mind and I think the situation made it even better. It was an old Ridge Montebello that one of my cousins stole from his dad, my uncle, back when he worked at Ridge and then stored for years. When we finally decided to open it up we were at a typical Mexican Thanksgiving with tons of people, great food, and probably the last place you would expect to see an 81 Montebello Estate from Ridge.  I think 81 or 88, and it was pretty damn good, funny, funny situation.

What’s next for you?

R: Stay in the area. I’m actually looking at a house to rent right now but the job has to come first so if anyone’s looking…

A: Not sure. I could go back home and work in the vineyard. I’ve also been checking out some wineries in the central valley I would like to work at, or I could start doing internships abroad.

Would Your Rather:

Cake or Pie?

Pie, Pie

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly, Fly

New World or Old World?

Old World, New World

Winemaker or Viticulturist

Viticulturist, Both

Wine Harvest Interns


We welcome Cinsaut (new to Tablas Creek), Bourboulenc (new to Paso Robles) and Vaccarese (new to America) all in one week!

It's been a momentous last week for us here at Tablas Creek. In three days, we added three grapes to our pantheon, bringing our total of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to 13 and our total of Rhone varieties to 15. See if you can spot the new ones:

New Grapes on Chalkboard

These three grapes are numbers four, five, and six of the seven new varieties that we imported in 2003. All of them took twelve years to be released from quarantine, and we planted them in the vineyard in 2016. This is the first year we've gotten a harvestable crop. As they're all just starting to ferment, we can't say much about what they'll ultimately be like, but I thought it would be interesting to summarize what we know about them so far, and speculate a little on what we expect. Here goes. Historical and planting information are summarized from Jancis Robinson's authoritative "Wine Grapes" (HarperCollins, 2012) and Harry Karis's "The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book" (Kavino, 2009) so planting information may be a few years out of date.

Bourboulenc
The fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. It's also found elsewhere in the south of France; Chateauneuf-du-Pape makes up just over 5% of the 1,537 acres reported in France in 2008. Bourboulenc is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the literature in the early 16th century, and from its earliest times identified with the south of France, particularly the area around Avignon. The vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. It is known in France to make wines with citrus aromatics and a distinctive smoky character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol.

We picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.38, and total acids of 3.53. Unfortunately, it was a night pick and went into the press before anyone remembered to take a photo, but it had a remarkable orange color coming out of the press:

Bourboulenc in beaker

Cinsaut (or Cinsault)
Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, making it 2.6% of total acreage and 2.8% of reds. Cinsaut (officially spelled without the "l" in American literature, and typically used interchangeably) is grown around the Mediterranean, with more than 51,000 acres in France, and significant plantings in Italy, Spain, Morocco, and South Africa. There are also 82 acres of mostly old vines in California as of 2018. Similar in many ways to Counoise, with large berries and large clusters, producing medium-to-light-bodied wines with floral and spice notes. Although Cinsaut has generally been preferred over Counoise in France because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes, which is why in our more reliable climate we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989.

We picked our Cinsaut (all 0.55 tons of it) at 22° Brix (roughly 13.6% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.64, and total acids of 4.23. You can see the distinctive large berries clearly:

Cinsaut cluster and bin

Vaccarèse
One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of both total and red acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 30 acres recorded in France and none elsewhere in the world. Also known as Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered") for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves. In look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters. As it's generally not fermented on its own even at Beaucastel, we don't have a ton to go on here.

We picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. We knew, given that this had never been harvested before in California (or America, or the New World) that we needed to document the milestone, so we got better photos of this than the first two:

Vaccarese Cluster in Bin

Vaccarese Cluster in Hand

So, what next for these new grapes? First, we'll get them through fermentation. There's going to be enough to make roughly five barrels (125 cases) of Bourboulenc and six barrels (150 cases) of Vaccarèse, so our tentative plan is to bottle these both as varietal wines. We prefer to do this, as long as we like them, in early years, so that we can begin the process of wrapping our heads around what the wines are like, and so we can share them with other interested customers and winemakers. With less than two barrels worth of Cinsaut, I'm not sure we'll have enough to keep separate, but we'll see.

In France, these three grapes are all typically blended. In the long run, that might make sense here. But the first step is to guide them through fermentation and get to the point where we can taste and evaluate what we've got. They are well on their way!

Three new grapes


Harvest 2019: Things heat up and produce our busiest-ever day (and second-busiest-ever week)

At the beginning of last week, three weeks after we'd seen our first grapes arrive in the cellar, Chelsea estimated that we were only 10% of the way done. By the end of the week, 132.4 tons later, we sat at 35% done. We saw our first Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, and estate Syrah. We direct-pressed 2700 gallons (over 1000 cases) of Grenache for our 2019 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Our staff parking lot became parking for bins on their way into the cellar:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Parking Lot Panorama

We're seeing some unusual timing this year, with grapes that are normally ripe later (like Roussanne and Counoise) ready to pick alongside earlier grapes like Viognier and Syrah. We're attributing this to the exceptional vine health we've seen this year, which has allowed those grapes that normally struggle with vigor as we get toward harvest season to remain green and photosynthesizing efficiently. But we're really not sure; we'll learn a lot more as we get deeper into harvest. For now, we'll enjoy seeing our harvest chalkboard fill up:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Chalkboard

The unusual overlap of varieties is a great opportunity to see the different colors of our different grapes side-by-side. For example, the dark, opaque Syrah (left) is a great counterpoint to the more translucent amethyst of Grenache (right):

Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Syrah 2Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Grenache

The samples we're taking on a daily basis are an even clearer illustration of the many hues in the vineyard, determined both by the grapes' inherent pigment and how close each is to harvest:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Samples

The peak of the week was Thursday, where estate Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah combined with Patelin Syrah and Patelin Rosé Grenache (those 2700 gallons I mentioned) to total over 51 tons, the most we've ever harvested in one day and more than 10% of what we're estimating we'll see the entire harvest. Chelsea pointed out how nice it was to get a day like this early in the harvest when everyone was still feeling fresh, rather than in mid-October, when everyone's already ragged.

What does it take to process 51.3 tons of grapes in a day? It begins around 1am with lights, Jordy, David, and our harvest crew arriving out in the Vermentino block. Neil arrives in the cellar at 3am to get the first press load of white going. By the time the rest of the winemaking team gets there around 6, that press is ready to empty, rinse, and refill with the next load. The first Grenache bins destined for Patelin Rosé have arrived, and our second press gets loaded with those. These two presses will cycle through press runs every 3 hours until evening. Meanwhile, bins of red grapes are unloaded from trailers as they arrive, labeled and stacked. We use a highly technical labeling system called "post-it notes":

Mid-Sept Harvest - Grenache D

One at a time, red bins are forklifted off their stacks, weighed, then dumped into the hopper and vibrated down the sorting table, where our team picks out any leaves or unripe or raisined clusters. The grapes then get de-stemmed and pumped into tanks to ferment. Amidst all this, all our red tanks (thankfully, not much yet) have to be pumped over, punched down, or otherwise mixed twice each day. You can see the last of the 103 bins that our rock star cellar team processed that day, in the hopper and on the sorting table:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Last Bin of Busiest Ever Day

Thankfully, the rest of the week wasn't quite at Thursday's pace, but it still resulted in a second-busiest-ever week, just a fraction of a ton less fruit than September 10-16, 2018. You can see how dramatically the harvest accelerated compared to its first three weeks:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Graph

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we felt harvest's wave building, but that it hadn't broken yet. Now it has, and we spent last week paddling fast. Everything looks great in the vineyard, and the flavors and numbers on the fruit we've been picking have been ideal. So, if I can push the analogy a little further, we're up on the board, and going to ride this one as long as we can.


Yes, we've started picking... but there's still plenty of ripening to be done

We've been picking, little by little, for about two weeks. We began with some Pinot Noir from my parents' place and Viognier from here, and then last week got our first Grenache Blanc, Syrah, and (bizarrely, since both are typically late-ripening) both Counoise and Roussanne. This week, we've been picking lots more Syrah, our Vermentino, and more Grenache Blanc. Chelsea estimated yesterday that we were about 10% done, and our harvest chalkboard isn't as empty as it used to be:

Harvest chalkboard mid-Sept

After a hot few days over the weekend, we've had a bit of respite the past few days. Clouds are unusual here in the summer and early fall, and although we didn't get the rain that some other parts of California did yesterday, it made for an unusual tableau. Equally welcome, temperatures topped out in the seventies:

Clouds over Tablas mid-Sept

It's useful to remember, when thinking about harvest for a Rhone specialist like us, that we'd expect it to take roughly two months between beginning and end. And since it's roughly six weeks between veraison and harvest, it's not surprising that we still have rainbow clusters (particularly in Mourvedre, our latest-ripener) even as we're bringing in our first grapes:

Mourvedre cluster mid-Sept

Our other grapes have mostly finished veraison. This Tannat cluster looks like it's ready to pick, although sugars are still a little low and it's likely a couple of weeks out:

Tannat cluster mid-Sept

White grapes are starting to pick up the more golden hue that they get as harvest approaches. Roussanne isn't quite at the russet color from which it derives its name yet, but it's getting there. It's a sign of the vineyard's health that Roussanne, often not ready until late October, has already started to come in. Normally, the grape's susceptibility to virus and stress-related devigoration slows ripening to a crawl sometime in August. Not this year:

Roussanne cluster mid-Sept

Even Counoise, which we wouldn't normally expect until mid-October, has made an appearance in the cellar. The clusters are beautiful, and the grapes make amazing eating. You might be able to tell, just by looking, why it was so valued as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes last century:

Counoise cluster mid-Sept

Most wine lovers, I've found, have pictures in their heads about what a vineyard should look like. These pictures pretty much all have ripe grapes hanging on the vine, dark purple and delectable. In reality, the window in which that scene is present is a relatively narrow one. But it's happening now. If you're coming out for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat:

Counoise

And no, that's not a stock photo. I took it in our Counoise block yesterday. Happy harvest season, everyone.


The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

DSC09594

The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

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And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

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We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


A Mid-veraison Photo Essay

 

Although most of the 2019 growing season has been on the cool side, we've had a couple of warm weeks since my last update. Nothing extraordinary for August (when our average high temperature is 92°F) but the first half of the month saw an average high of 93.8°F and two days late last week topped 100°F. And then, the weather broke, and we had an absolutely stunning weekend, with highs of 73 and 74, a nice breeze off the ocean, and cool, crisp nights down in the 40s.

I took advantage of the cool this morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're just a touch before veraison's midpoint, maybe 40% overall. So, there are nearly as many berries pink or red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start.

Syrah

Syrah is easily the most advanced red grape. I'd estimate it's at roughly 80% versaison. The clusters in the below photo are maybe a touch more advanced than average:

Syrah C

Mourvedre

Although it will be late to harvest, Mourvedre actually went into veraison before Grenache. It's still only at about 40% through, I would estimate, and because it takes so long between veraison's end and when it's ready to pick, we're not likely to see it before October.

Mourvedre

Grenache

There is not much in a vineyard setting that is more beautiful than a Grenache cluster going through veraison. A single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Grenache

I'd estimate that Grenache is only about 30% into veraison; the cluster above was unusually advanced.

Counoise

Last week, I walked two different Counoise blocks and couldn't find any veraison except on a few weak vines. But this morning, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It's still far more green than red, and overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Counoise closeup

White grapes go through veraison too, although it's hard to photograph the subtle color changes that they undergo. But as they get close to ripeness, you do start to see a yellower tint to the formerly-green grapes. 

Viognier

We're guessing that the first grape we'll get into the cellar will be Viognier. You can start to see the color change in the grape clusters in the photo below:

Viognier at Tablas Creek August 2019

With the combination of plentiful rainfall last winter and our relatively mild summer, I saw fewer signs of stress than I can ever remember in mid-August. I'll share some shots that give you a little more of a view of the vines (in addition to the multicolored clusters). First, Syrah:

Syrah C cordon

And second, another Counoise shot, maybe my favorite of the entire day. Counoise is typically looking a little ragged by now, with as much brown or yellow in its leaves as green. Not this year:

Counoise

Overall, things look great as we turn into the home stretch. But we're going to have to be patient. We're starting to read stories about the grape harvest beginning in other parts of California, and even at Beaucastel things are getting close:

Syrah close to harvest. #familleperrin #beaucastel #syrah #rhonevalley #rhonevalleywines #winery #harvest

Posted by Famille Perrin - Beaucastel on Monday, August 12, 2019

But here, we're going to have to wait a bit. I still don't expect grapes before September, and not much before the middle of the month.


Veraison 2019 Suggests a mid-September Start to Harvest

This year, as both Jordy and I have noted, has been cool. Even the warm stretches have been moderate. And the vineyard has noticed. While in most years I would be posting about veraison in mid-to late-July, this year we didn't see any evidence of color until just a few days ago. And it's still barely started. But now, if you head to one of our Syrah blocks, you don't have to look too hard to find veraison:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 1

Veraison is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. The most advanced Syrah cluster I could find has some berries that don't look all that different than they will at harvest:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 3

It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green (you can see this in all the other clusters in the above photo). At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, I couldn't find any red in any of them. This Mourvedre cluster is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you the same thing:

Veraison 2019 Mourvedre

Although the "first veraison of the season" posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be several weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and longer than that until late grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise finish coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, 2007's first veraison was in mid-July, but relatively light crop levels and a very warm August produced a beginning to harvest before the end of August. By contrast, in 2010 a veraison ten days later than 2007's (July 30th, just like this year) was compounded by a very cool August, and we started harvest after the mid-point of September, three weeks later than we had in 2007. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 40
2018 July 29 September 101 42
2019 July 30 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 4th and September 17th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will likely be followed by Mourvedre and Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, according to Jordy, although the visible changes are subtle enough that a photograph doesn't really show anything. Vermentino and Marsanne will move into veraison on the earlier side, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul in the middle, and Roussanne bringing up the rear, as usual. It's an exciting time, and the view changes daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're finishing up the last of the year's bottling, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

I'm not sure whether veraison really marks the beginning of the end of the growing season. But it does at least seem to mark the end of the beginning. The countdown clock is ticking, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.

Veraison 2019 Syrah 2

Footnotes:

  1. OK, we picked our first Viognier on August 31st. But we didn't bring in any estate reds off the property until September 10th, so I'm going with that date.

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

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

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

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

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed….