A Sigh of Relief from the Blending Table as the 2020 Whites Are Strong and Unaffected by Smoke

Last week, six of us spent most of the week around our blending table working to turn the 39 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2020 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. For the second year in a row, this was a reduced group compared to normal, with the challenges of international travel dictating that we sit down without a Perrin in attendance, and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Amanda, and me) in the interest of maintaining distance around the table. It was further complicated by the fact that we had a couple of storm fronts blow through Paso Robles, chasing us indoors after the first day and (with all our open windows and doors) leading to papers blowing around and everyone breaking out their collection of padded coats and beanies. But at least we knew that fresh air was circulating!

This blending session was particularly interesting because it was our first time sitting down in a comprehensive way and evaluating what came out of the challenges of the 2020 vintage. When I wrote up my 2020 harvest recap, I felt pretty sure that we hadn't seen any smoke taint, or taken any serious harm from the twin heat spikes that broke records as the grapes were ripening. Still, there's only so much that you can tell in harvest's immediate aftermath, when the wines are still sweet and the cellar full of fermentation aromas. So, as we sat down together, we all felt that the stakes were higher than they might be in a more normal vintage. I'm pleased to report that after four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that 2020 will take its place proudly in our recent string of strong vintages.

If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.

Our first step, on Monday, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means the lot has the richness, elegance, and balance to be worthy of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it doesn't seem like Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle. A snapshot of my notes:

Blending Notes - 2020 Whites

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash (1/2, or 2/3). As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (6 lots): A really outstanding Viognier vintage, with classic luscious flavors and aromas and better-than usual acidity and minerality. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. Two "1" lots, two 1/2 lots, and two 2's.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A strong Marsanne showing, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One "2", one "1/2", and our favorite lot (a "1" grade) with a little extra mouthfeel and tropicality that will be the core of our varietal Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Perhaps not at the level of the 2019 Picardan (my favorite in our short history) but still very nice: a tropical nose reminiscent of Viognier, but with a clean, pure palate expression and bright acids. The finish was a little short, so I gave it a 1/2.
  • Bourboulenc (2 lots): The second harvest for our newest grape. Last year's was a crazy orange color when it came out of the press, and although it dropped clear and lightened up, it retained a golden tinge to it. So we experimented with a couple of different pick dates this year, and were rewarded by both of them being a more typical color. The two lots were different, with the earlier pick showing a lush nose but a lean, bright palate, while the later pick showed a quieter nose but a creamier, lusher palate. I gave both lots "2" grades, though (as you'll see) we ended up using some in Esprit Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was lovely: pretty green wheatgrass aromas and a vibrant lemony palate with salty minerality. I gave it a 1.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): OK, now we got to the wines that we had in quantity. Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation. And this year we had a lot of it: over 7,000 gallons. I found the quality very high overall, but with more diversity than in most of the other grapes: four "1" grades with brightness, lushness, and minerality, a 1/2 that was classic but a little leaner, a "2" that was nicely saline but didn't show much fruit, two 2/3 lots, each promising but also worrying, both in the final stages of fermentation and showing a little weirdness, and an "incomplete" that was still sweet enough to be impossible for me to assign a grade. I think these last three lots will all turn into something good, but they weren't there yet. Patience.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Outstanding for Picpoul, with all three lots showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit and a 1/2 that was beautifully fresh and lively and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Roussanne (10 lots): These were the hardest for me to evaluate, perhaps because a squall blew through as we were tasting and forced us to run indoors as hail fell on our patio. I only found two lots that were clear "1" grades for me. But four lots got "1/2" grades. The reasons varied. One was lovely but still sweet. Another two had great texture but were (for me) a little worryingly low in acid. The fourth was oak-dominated, clearly too much on its own, but likely valuable in a blend. Then there were three "2" lots, all honeyed and lush, with pure Roussanne flavors, but soft and without the length or persistence we want for Esprit. Finally, there was one 2/3 lot that was atypical for Roussanne, pineapply and bright but relatively light in body. We decided to declassify that to Patelin Blanc, where it will fit in nicely.

We finished Monday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. The shortage of obvious Esprit-caliber Roussanne, and the relative softness of the lots in the next tier, suggested that we try some Esprit Blanc blends with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid grapes than usual. But whether that should mean more Grenache Blanc, more Picpoul, or more of the obscure whites than usual we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for!

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. One, which none of us preferred, hewed closer to our "traditional" blend, with none of the obscure grapes and a roughly 60/30/10 balance of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul. Better was a blend that decreased the Roussanne to make room for more Picpoul and some Clairette and Picardan. But the consensus favorite included our highest percentage of Picpoul Blanc (14%) since 2015 and made room for significant quantities of all three obscure whites. That means that the 2020 Esprit Blanc will for the first time contain all six approved white Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes. That's exciting! It also will have a quantity of Roussanne that ties for our lowest-ever, at just 45%. But still, the finished wine had texture, lushness, complexity, and minerality, and plenty enough acidity to keep everything lively. The final blend: 45% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. A note to lovers of this wine: because of the relative scarcity of top Roussanne, we made a few hundred cases less of this than we have in recent years. Consider yourselves forewarned that it may go fast.

Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid in the primary support role. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where set them to roughly equal levels but added a little more Viognier. Tasting the wines, we settled on the blend heaviest in Grenache Blanc, which seemed to focus Viognier's aromatics while also providing a vibrant, fresh, juicy palate. Final blend: 38% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 22% Marsanne, and 8% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, the only grape that we'd used all of was Clairette Blanche. Looking at the quantities of the varietals that this left us, everything seemed fine except that because of the generosity of the vintage and the smaller quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we made, we were on track to make about 1500 cases of our varietal Grenache Blanc. Given that this isn't a wine we sell much of in wholesale, to keep our supply reasonable we decided to declassify an additional 800 gallons into our 2020 Patelin Blanc. Combined with the relatively large Roussanne declassification, this means that our 2020 Patelin Blanc will be fully one-quarter Tablas Creek fruit. This works out well; we had been conservative in the tonnage of grapes we'd contracted for, worried that the pandemic-induced closures of restaurants would mean we'd end up long on supply. Thanks to a very nice score from Wine Spectator for the 2019 Patelin Blanc, that turned out not to be the case, and having some more of this wine will be good. Plus, those estate lots are only going to make the 2020 Patelin Blanc that much better.

With our blends decided, our final step was to taste them alongside the seven varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2020. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2020 Bourboulenc (180 cases): Medium gold. A nose of caramel apple and marzipan, lifted by a bright lemongrass note. On the palate, bright with preserved lemon and chamomile flavors and a little pithy note on the long finish.
  • 2020 Picardan (70 cases): A tropical but lively nose of lychee and passionfruit. A similar palate with mango and sweet spice, cleaning up to a chalky mineral note on the finish.
  • 2020 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of fresh pineapple. That pineapple note continues onto the palate, with a richer texture than most picpouls. Long and creamy on the finish with a wet rock mineral note.
  • 2020 Grenache Blanc (1040 cases): Super appealing on the nose: lemon meringue and butterscotch and sea spray. Sweet citrus fruit (lemon drop?) and cream soda on the finish. Still a bit more sugar to ferment but super promising.
  • 2020 Viognier (660 cases): Classic young Viognier nose of Haribo peach. The mouth is leaner than the nose suggests: nectarine, white flowers, and a little pithy bite. Should be really appealing with a lift rare in the grape.
  • 2020 Marsanne (350 cases): A nose of peppered melon rind and apricot pit, absolutely classic for young Marsanne. The mouth is clean and spare, gentle kiwi and sarsaparilla, with a chalky mineral finish.
  • 2020 Roussanne (940 cases): Honeydew melon and jasmine on the nose. Mouth-filling and creamy on the palate, with flavors of beeswax and white tea. More textural than flavorful right now. We're going to put it back in some newer barrels for the next six months.
  • 2020 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2500 cases): Nose of lemongrass, ginger, and green apple, with a little meaty charcuterie note adding depth. The palate starts with bright apricot and quince flavors, then softens into a sweeter peachy note. Serious and complex for Patelin Blanc, and a worthy successor to the 2019.
  • 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1230 cases): A nose of nectarine and mandarin, seemingly signed equally by Viognier and Grenache Blanc. A sweet/tart contrast on the palate, with lime and ripe peach. A little coconut-like creamy texture comes out on the finish.
  • 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1960 cases): Despite its relatively low Roussanne component, very Roussanne on the nose: beeswax and honeysuckle, lemon bar and graham cracker. The mouth is luscious and textured, with citrus blossom honey and vanilla bean, then cleaning up on the finish to honeycrisp apple and saline mineral.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The power of blending really came through to me in this process. As I said above, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Roussanne lots, as a whole. But the Esprit Blanc turned out to be terrific. The luxury of being able to reduce the quantity of our lead grape and bolster the wine with the texture and acid of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul and the complexity of the three "minor" varieties allowed us to do something we could never have done just using Roussanne lots. There are times when adding other components actually make the wine taste more like the lead grape. This was one of those times. 
  • The 2020 vintage gave us lots of texture and flavor at very low alcohols. The overall potential alcohols of all the Rhone whites as a unit was just 12.52%. Grapes like Marsanne and Roussanne were even lower at 11.5% and 12.4% respectively. I think that this was one area where we saw an impact of the stressfulness of the vintage. Those late-summer heat spikes did a number on the acid levels of all the grapes. Those with normally higher acids (like Picpoul, or Grenache Blanc) had enough to withstand that. But Marsanne and Roussanne are naturally lower acid anyway, and we just couldn't leave them on the vines long enough to get to the sugar levels that we're used to without our acids falling to unacceptable levels. That said, I felt like the finished wines had plenty of texture, and enough acidity. The alcohol numbers on the labels, though, may be eye-openingly low. 
  • It's early to know what vintage 2020 will end up reminding us of. But in recent years, it seems like 2015 might provide a pretty good comparison. In that year too, stressful conditions (the peak of our 2012-2016 drought) led to Roussanne lots with low acids and low alcohols. Our solution was similar: reduce Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc to make room for more of the Grenache Blanc and (especially) Picpoul Blanc. Going back to read my notes from the 2015 white blending I see a lot of similar threads. If the wines turn out like that, I'll be excited... 2015 is one of my favorite recent vintages. 

Of course, we've still got a ways to go. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. But as a first detailed look into a year that dropped a number of new hurdles in our way, it's incredibly encouraging. I now feel confident saying that the wines from 2020 will give us something we want to remember from a year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending Bottles - 2020 Whites


Harvest 2020 Recap: Fast and Furious, a Reflection of Our Warmest Harvest Season Ever

On Friday, with the bin of Tannat pictured below, we completed the 2020 harvest. This capped a 45-day sprint: among our shorter harvests and earliest finishes in our history. What produced this sustained sprint? Our warmest-ever harvest season, with really no breaks in the heat, except for a couple of days where the atmospheric smoke was so thick that the sun never came out and the days topped out in the low 70s. That wasn't pleasant. But for all the unusual conditions and unrelenting pace, we're still happy with the quality of what's in the cellar. And that, in 2020, is reason to celebrate:

Last bin of 2020 harvest

Many years, you expect to see a bell curve-shaped harvest graph. Not 2020. After a fairly gentle first two weeks, we brought in between 60 and 75 tons off the estate each week for five weeks, and then were done. The chart below shows the box-shaped curve (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Harvest Tons By Week 2020

Yields were solid, up about 7% from 2019, but still in that 3-3.5 tons per acre that we see in many of our favorite vintages. This is somewhat of a surprise. We were expecting yields at or below last year even before the record heat waves impacted yields on sensitive grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne. And those two grapes did suffer a bit. But other grapes, particularly the Grenaches, made up the difference. The complete picture:

Grape 2020 Yields (tons) 2019 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2019
Viognier 18.8 17.4 +8.0%
Marsanne 13.0 12.3 +5.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.7 28.3 +65.0%
Picpoul Blanc 8.7 8.6 +1.2%
Vermentino 21.1 24.7 -14.6%
Roussanne 34.8 46.1 -24.5%
Other whites 7.9 7.8 +1.3%
Total Whites 151.0 145.2 +4.0%
Grenache 74.9 51.4 +45.7%
Syrah 43.8 42.5 +3.1%
Mourvedre 46.9 49.6 -5.4%
Tannat 17.6 19.0 -7.4%
Counoise 15.9 20.0 -20.5%
Other reds 7.2 5.6 +28.6%
Total Reds 206.3 188.1 +9.7%
Total 357.3 333.3  +7.2%

Average yields ended up at 3.35 tons per acre, just slightly above our ten-year average, and almost exactly our average if you exclude the frost years of 2009 and 2011. Other years between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre include 2008, 2018, and 2019, all among our favorite years. It's perhaps unsurprising that our later-ripening grapes (like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Tannat, and Counoise) were the ones that were down (by just under 15%, on average) since the vines were starting to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. Why we weren't down overall can be credited to Grenache, and that was up not because of the conditions in 2020, but because in 2019 both Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc suffered reduced yields due to shatter (incomplete fertilization of berries caused by cool weather or wind during flowering).

I am concerned that this is two years in a row of very low Mourvedre production. Both years came in under two tons per acre. Some of that is variety-specific (we know it's not a high-yielding grape like Grenache or even Syrah) but it came in at 2.6 tons/acre as recently as 2017, and in the mid-2000's averaged around 3.0 tons/acre. We know we have some missing vines in some of our older Mourvedre blocks, and we'll be replanting a Mourvedre block we pulled out a couple of years ago. Hopefully, between some additional focus on vine health and these new blocks, we'll be able to get our Mourvedre production back up. For this year, I'm expecting it to constrain the amount of Esprit de Tablas and varietal Mourvedre we can make.

We had 118 harvest lots, an increase of 23 over 2019. Most of that is multiple picks that we made with our late-ripening blocks (identified with Roman numerals in the chalkboard below) but it's also exciting to see our first-ever harvest of Muscardin:

2020 Harvest Chalkboard Final

That Muscardin, 130 pounds in total, is currently sitting in our smallest stainless steel microfermenter. We're hoping for maybe 10 gallons of wine, enough to taste and evaluate. Stay tuned!

Muscardin Microfermenter

Muscardin Microfermenter Closeup

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
2020 22.14 3.62

You'll note that 2020's numbers are very similar to last year's, and in fact our average harvest pH has been steady for three years. Given how much we love the 2019's, that's a good thing. It also suggests that, as much as we know that the late-ripening grapes did suffer in the heat, our multiple picks allowed us to get the riper clusters off the healthier vines early enough to maintain solid acids.

In terms of weather, I feel like I invited disaster when in late July I commented that 2020's conditions had been, so far, benign. And almost from that moment, it got hot. Some of those days had noteworthy, record-breaking heat. But even the days that weren't noteworthy were mostly warmer than normal. Between August 10th and October 9th (our last day of harvest), we saw just 15 days cooler than seasonal averages, vs. 46 days above, often significantly so. You can see the two stretches that broke records in mid-August and early September, but it's worth also noting the third spike in late September and early October, with daytime highs some 15+ degrees above normal. 

Daily High Temps 2020 Harvest

Looking at that information another way, our August degree day totals were 25% above the average of what is already our a very hot month. September was 21% above average. And the first 9 days of October (we finished picking October 9th) were 55% above our 20-year averages. No wonder harvest was short! The chart below shows our degree days by month, including the warmer-than-normal May and June, the cooler-than-normal July, and then the scorching August-October periods. Note that October's information is for the first 9 days, as we picked our last block on October 9th:

Degree Days vs Average 2020 Growing Season

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 45 days -- was on the short side for us. But it's in keeping with what we've observed with all our vintage markers since August, that the durations were compressed by the heat. That includes the duration between veraison and harvest, and between first harvest and last harvest. But individual grapes often stretched across the harvest, as we went through in multiple passes to get what was ripe off the vines while it still had good acidity, knowing we would come back a second or third time if necessary. So, the sequencing we often talk about, with harvest beginning with grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, moving to mid-ripening grapes like Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache, and finishing with late grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Picpoul, and Mourvedre is more complex in 2020. Here's the spread in harvest dates for our principal grapes. We picked four different grapes on our last harvest day (October 9th). The first pick of those grapes were September 4th, September 15th, September 23rd, and September 29th!

  • Viognier: August 25-September 12
  • Counoise: September 4-October 9
  • Vermentino: September 9-11
  • Syrah: September 9-October 8
  • Marsanne: September 10-11
  • Grenache Blanc: September 14-28
  • Grenache Noir: September 15-October 9
  • Roussanne: September 16-October 8
  • Mourvedre: September 23-October 9
  • Tannat: September 29-October 9
  • Picpoul: October 2-7

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was unusually enthusiastic, commenting that all the lots showed lots of character, better acids than he'd been expecting, and savory, spicy personalities. We've been tasting lots to try to find any that might have even a hint of smoke taint from the California wildfires earlier in the season, but haven't found even one. That's a relief. As for the vintage's personality, we'll know more 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 everything smells amazing, the rich aroma of young red wines spreading throughout the cellar with every press load: 

2020 Press Load in the Sun

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time. There was a chance of some rain this past weekend, though as often happens with early-season systems, it petered out without providing any precipitation here. And, there's nothing wet in the long-term forecast. But that gives us time to put the vineyard to bed, get the animals out into the vineyard to eat any second crop clusters before they rot, spread their manure and jump start the winter soil microbial activity. It also means that we don't have to worry about grapes on the vine being impacted by any other extreme weather that we might see. It is 2020, after all.

And yet, despite all the challenges, in this craziest year that any of us have experienced, we're feeling cautiously optimistic that the 2020 wines might provide something we want to remember.


What the cellar and vineyard look and feel like at harvest's peak

As I write this, we've passed the 90% mark of the 2020 harvest. But that doesn't mean we're on the gentle tail end of things, just waiting for the last few lots to finish as we cruise into autumn. No, this harvest is more like a sprint to the tape at the end of a race. Today, we have harvested two different blocks of Mourvedre, three different blocks of Counoise, plus Roussanne and Picpoul. We are pressing off red lots, washing barrels to put those newly-pressed wines into, and washing out the tanks they came from so they're ready for more. It's a beehive of activity. I thought it would be fun to give a visual tour of what this, one of the busiest days of the year, feels like. First, the crushpad, littered with bins and barrels:

Crushpad with bins and barrels

Our main cellar room, looking toward the crushpad, shows closed tanks around the outside and open-top fermenters down the middle. They're all full, except a few of our largest blending tanks and the one open-top that is clean and ready for some of the Mourvedre that arrived today. Each tank has to be punched down or pumped over at least twice a day:

Main cellar room

The room where we have our white fermentations going looks deceptively quiet, but each of the barrels gets measured each day so we know its progress through fermentation. You can see some of that work going on in the back of the room, between the foudre stacks:

White cellar room

We've moved as many barrels as we can out of our red barrel room to make room for macro-bins, each with a small-lot fermentation going:

Barrel cellar room

The room that's full of upright tanks (below left) is quiet now, but five of the six big tanks are full of fermenting red lots. The sixth? It was drained and washed this morning, and will be filled this afternoon. For now it's empty, so you can see (below right) the warm color stained inside by generations of red fermentations, as well as the stainless steel tubing that allows us to control the temperature (and therefore the speed) of the fermentations inside:

Upright cellar room Inside an upright tank

The only room that's not seeing any activity is our foudre room, where the 2019 red blends are sitting quietly, aging and mellowing, in preparation for next summer's bottling:

Foudre room

On the crushpad, we have twin presses going. In the left we have newly-harvested Roussanne. In the right is Mourvedre that has been fermenting and macerating on the skins for about two weeks:

Roussanne in the press

Mourverdre in the press

Where does the newly-pressed wine go? Into barrels. Most of these barrels have been sitting empty the last few months, so we need to make sure they're clean and that the staves haven't dried out. Steam is a very water-efficient way of doing both:

Washing barrels

In the vineyard, it's getting hard to find blocks with grapes still on the vines. After today, those blocks will be limited to Mourvedre and Counoise, and even most of those blocks have been picked once already. A couple of blocks with fruit still on them include the Mourvedre just south of the winery (left) and a low-lying head-trained Counoise block toward the western edge of our original parcel (right). Everything is ready; it's just a question of sequencing to make sure we have space for what arrives.

Mourvedre clusters Counoise head trained

Finally, one piece that it feels appropriate to end on. I talk a lot about the importance of continuity in our vineyard crew, who we've given year-round employment to since the mid-1990's. We rely on that crew to do most of our sorting out in the field, so underripe or damaged grapes don't even make it to the sorting table. I loved this photo of our lowest-lying Grenache block, which was picked Monday, with rejected clusters left on the ground to decompose and return their nutrients to the soil:

Grenache cluster on the ground

With the fruit nearly all in, the chance of rain that's in the forecast for this weekend would have only positive consequences. We'll keep our fingers crossed for that, and enjoy the last few days with grapes on the vine and the cellar a beehive of activity.

Crushpad October 2020


The 2020 Harvest at its Midpoint: Yields, Intensity, and Pacing Much Like 2019

Sometime early last week, Neil walked into the office we share to report that we've hit the halfway point based on our projections. We're done with all our whites except Roussanne and Picpoul. Syrah and Cinsaut are all in, as is much of our Grenache. We're beginning to turn our attention to the late trio of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. 167 tons in, I thought it would be a good time to step back and assess what we've learned so far. It seems appropriate to start with the requisite photo of bins all over the crushpad:

Crushpad Sept 2020

Another sign our harvest has hit the midpoint: we've completed the left column of our harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 25 2020

With our early-ripening grapes complete, we have an opportunity to wrap our heads around the vintage's yields. Of the already-picked grapes, it looks like we're very close to the numbers we saw in 2019: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are all within 10% of their 2019 totals. We did see a little less Vermentino (down about 15%) and a little more of our new grapes that are now on their fourth leaf (Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Cinsaut). Overall, of the grapes we're done picking, our 2020 yields are 1.3% less than 2019. Given that 2019 finished at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average, and that other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages (2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016, as well as 2019) that's encouraging.

It's even more encouraging that we've seen zero evidence of any smoke taint in the grapes we've harvested so far. That's consistent with our belief that the smoke that was here in August wasn't thick enough or around for long enough to cause damage, but it's still very good news. Our thoughts are with our neighbors in regions to our north who have been dealing with the fallout from earlier fires, and now have the Glass Fire to deal with. The photos I've seen are just heartbreaking.

The last couple of weeks have seen perfect ripening conditions, with days topping out in the upper-80s to mid-90s, and cool nights down in the 40s and 50s. It's supposed to warm up a bit this week, but nothing extreme, so it seems like we're going to roll right through the end of harvest uninterrupted. To figure out what comes next, we're sampling the remaining blocks on a near-daily basis. In the below photo, Vineyard Manager David Maduena has Roussanne and Grenache samples he's starting to crush to get a representative sample for measurement:

David sampling Roussanne and Grenache

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the main grapes that are still out in the vineyard, roughly in the order in which they're likely to arrive in the cellar. First, two photos of Grenache, which is likely to be all picked by the end of the week. I'll be sad, because it's always the most beautiful grape in the vineyard to photograph:

Grenache from Below Sept 2020

Grenache gemstones cropped

Next, Roussanne. We've made a few "cherry picks" of this notoriously uneven ripener, going in to get the ripest clusters off the healthiest vines while they still have good acids, while leaving the bulk of the fruit out for some more ripening time.

Roussanne Sept 2020
Mourvedre is likely to be our last grape picked, sometime in mid-October, but because we have so much of it planted it shows a range of ripenesses. We brought in our first Mourvedre lot last Wednesday, from a head-trained block at the extreme western edge of our property, but more of it looks like the below photo:

Mourvedre Sept 2020

We haven't harvested any Tannat, but we expect to start getting some into the cellar later this week. This photo, from a head-trained block in the middle of the vineyard, is looking terrific. It seems like all the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks are looking strong this year.

Tannat Sept 2020

Finally, Counoise. We did bring in just a little for our Dianthus rosé last week, but most of it just finished veraison and won't be in until mid-October. Perhaps you can see in this cluster why it was so prized as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes: the berries are large and juicy, with good acids:

Counoise Sept 2020

While there are still plenty of grapes out in the vineyard, there are more and more blocks that are done, like the Cinsaut vines below. Those will get another month or two of photosynthesis, to store energy for the winter.

Picked Cinsaut Sept 2020

Harvest even in a normal year can feel like it passes in a blur. You wait anxiously for its beginning. When it starts, it's often slow at first, and you're waiting for things to heat up. Then, you're in the thick of it, and suddenly you're on the downside. It seems like 2020, with its bending of time from the pandemic, has only increased this sense. At the end of this week, we'll be roughly two-thirds done, and in three weeks, likely finished. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights and smells of a cellar full of grapes. We know that soon enough, we'll be washing equipment and putting things to bed for winter.


2020: The Year Climate Change Got Real for American Wine

As I write this, I'm staring out at a dim, yellow landscape, the indistinct sunlight filtered through a thick layer of atmospheric smoke. I have a sweatshirt on because the day has never really warmed up here in town. We had a couple of days this past week, prime ripening season in Paso Robles, where it barely made it out of the sixties. A photo, no filter applied:

Harvest Apocalypse

We're not really complaining; as apocalyptic as it looks, the air has been cool and fresh at the surface, and we got a chance to catch up on harvesting after what was a scorching hot previous weekend. And plenty is ready. Pretty much all our Syrah. The Vermentino and Marsanne. Our first lots of Grenache Blanc. The smoke has reduced actual temperatures from model forecasts by some 20 degrees, and if we'd had the mid-90s weather that was forecast for this week, it's possible that new blocks would have ripened before we could get through the backlog that the last heat wave produced.

This smoke layer, driven by the fact that six of California ten largest fires ever are currently burning, is only the most recent of a series of unprecedented things we've seen in the 2020 growing season. A week ago, we had a heat wave that crested with back-to-back-to-back days that topped out at 109, 113, and 111. The Paso Robles Airport broke its all-time high with a 117 reading. And San Luis Obispo hit 120°F, which appears to be the highest temperature ever recorded in a coastal zone anywhere in North or South America.

Last month, we saw a trio of fires in the Central Coast produce so much smoke at the surface that we closed our tasting patio for four days because the air quality was so bad. On August 20th, San Luis Obispo had the worst air quality in the world. Those fires were sparked by a surge of tropical moisture, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto, that moved up the California coast and produced thousands of lighting strikes on August 14th and 15th. The fires lit by those lightning strikes were fueled by another heat wave that pushed temperatures over 105°F each day between August 15th and 18th.

Paso Robles is hot in the summer. Summer days over 100°F have never been rare here. But the increased number and distribution of these days, the fact that records are falling more often, the earlier and earlier beginnings to harvest (and the shorter durations between veraison and harvest), and finally the new, tropical-influenced rainfall patterns, are new. A few data points that I look at:

  • Over our first 15 vintages, 1997-2011, we started our estate harvest in August 40% of the years. Since 2012, we have done so 78% of vintages. Similarly, in those first 15 years, there were six times we harvested into November, and another four that finished October 28th or later. Over the last 8 years, we haven't once harvested in November.
  • It's not just harvest. This year's gap between veraison and harvest was just 35 days, breaking our record of 36, set in both 2016 and 2019. Before that, the record was 39, in 2015. 2013 was the first year that we saw 40 or fewer days between veraison and harvest. So, in less than a decade, we've seen this critical ripening period shrink by 15%. Crucial growing periods are getting hotter. 
  • Our total growing season degree days, a rough measurement of the number of hours in which it's warm enough for grapevines to photosynthesize efficiently, shows that since 2000, our five warmest years have all come since 2012.

All those data points are indicative, but none of them are likely to on their own pose much of a threat to winemaking here in Paso Robles. But they feed into two phenomena that do: droughts and fires. I'll address droughts first. I wrote a 3-part blog series back in 2014 about our move toward dry farming as a part of being ready for what seems likely to be a drier future. In the research for that, I looked at EPA projections for rainfall showed that, depending on our success in reducing emissions, coastal California would see between 20% and 35% less precipitation annually by the end of the 21st Century:

Southwest-precip-change

That research has since been reinforced by studies of warming in the Pacific Ocean, which will have a complex series of consequences, including increased rainfall in places like northern Australia, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia, but less rainfall (and a later onset of the rainy season) in coastal California. This suggests that droughts, particularly the multi-year droughts like the one we saw between 2012 and 2016, will become more common.

Next, fires. It's not like California is a stranger to fires, but severe ones are definitely happening more often. I moved out here in 2002. The first time after that there was any smoke here was July 2008, when I wrote in a blog that two big fires to our north had burned some 73,000 acres in three weeks. (Note that that figure seems almost quaint now, with the horrific Creek Fire east of Fresno burning 160,000 acres in the first four days.) The second fire I noted in the blog was in 2016. Except for 2019, we've seen scary fires in California's wine country each year since then, and 2020 has already seen the most acres burned on record:

The fires are driven by a number of factors, including higher temperatures, lower humidities, poor utility maintenance, human encroachment into wildland areas, and accumulated fuel in the forests after a century of fire suppression. All of these encourage fires to be bigger, faster-growing, and more destructive than before. But what has set the worst ones off in recent years has been climate-related: either through dry winds spurring (and spreading) fires through downed power lines in periods before it has rained in California, or by tropical moisture that has sparked summer lightning.

The fires that impacted Northern California in 2017 and 2018 were produced by late-season (October and November) windstorms that spurred fires from an aging electrical grid. This is largely a governmental and regulatory failure. But while these windstorms aren't new, and don't particularly appear to be a function of climate change, thanks to climate change the time of year when these storms are common is more likely to still be summer-dry. That is why the climate change-driven later onset to the rainy season is a significant contributor to the number and severity of fires.

2020's fires in California have been different. The storms this summer that produced the first series of wildfires were driven by tropical moisture that was pulled into California. A warming climate produces more and larger tropical storms and hurricanes. 2020 has already seen so many tropical storms that I've begun to read articles about how NOAA might run out of names. The direct impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes on California are rare, and minor compared to their impacts in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. But the more of these storms that form, the greater the chance that tropical moisture can end up in unexpected places. These occasionally produce enough moisture to provide some short-term fire risk reduction (such as the July 2015 storm that dropped more than two inches of rain on us) but more often produce extensive lightning with only limited moisture. These sorts of storms introduce extreme fire risk. 

The combination of warmer days, dryer (and later-beginning) winters, and more frequent incursions of summer tropical moisture has combined to produce drastically more days with very high fire risk.

So, what to do? That's the hard part. Most of the response has to come at the governmental level. Investments need to be made to modernize utilities. Forest management practices could be improved to reduce the amount of fuel that builds up. Cities, counties, and states should adopt growth plans that reduce the human/wildland interface as much as possible, both to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to minimize the loss of life and property when they do. But ultimately, if climate change itself goes unaddressed, all these initiatives (none of which are easy or likely to come without resistance) are likely to be overwhelmed by the growth in the number of extreme fire days and fast spread of fires that do start.

Here's where regenerative agriculture comes in. One of its tenets is that agriculture has an important and necessary role in the reduction of greenhouse gases (and especially Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere. And plants, after all, are the best engines we have in doing so, since photosynthesis uses CO2 as one of its inputs, turning that carbon into carbohydrates. But modern farming produces more emissions than the plants it grows consume. Some of that is the fertilizer, derived mostly from petrochemicals. Some of that is the fuel for the tractors and other machinery. And some of it is the processing of the agricultural products.

Regenerative agriculture leads the way toward building carbon content in the soil, through a combination of permaculture, cover crops, reduction in tillage, and the replacement of chemical inputs with natural ones like compost or manure. Soils with more carbon content also hold more moisture, which will help California wineries weather the droughts too. We showed in the application process for our new Regenerative Organic Certification that it was possible to increase our soil's carbon content while growing grapes even in a dry climate like Paso Robles.

Regenerative farming is not just for wineries. It's what all farms, from row crops to orchards to fibers to livestock, should be moving toward. But vineyards offer some of the lowest-hanging opportunities for better farming, because wine is a value-added product with the resources to invest, and the investments tend also to make higher-quality grapes and longer-lived vines, providing return on the investments.

I can't imagine how California, Oregon, or Washington wineries can live through the 2020 vintage without worrying about how climate change might impact their future. A small silver lining could be encouraging more of that community to move toward regenerative farming. Consumers have a role to play here too. Before this year, there wasn't an available standard for moving to, measuring, and being audited for being regenerative. Now, with the launch of Regenerative Organic Certification, there is. If your favorite wineries are not farming regeneratively, you should be asking them why not. It's one of the tools we as farmers have to take some control over what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and dangerous future that might look like last week a lot more often than any of us would want. 

IMG_6029


Harvest 2020 Begins Slowly, After a Record-Short Interval from Veraison

Last week, we brought in our first two lots of Viognier and our first lot of Syrah. It wasn't a furious start to harvest, but it was still a beginning. The cellar smells like honeysuckle and nectarines from the Viognier, there's the energy that always comes from the beginning of the harvest season, and the harvest chalkboard is no longer a literal clean slate:

Harvest Chalkboard August 2020

[Editor's note, congratulations to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and her husband Trevor on the arrival of their little girl Bohdi on our second day of harvest!!!]

We typically mark the beginning of harvest as the day the first fruit comes off the estate. So, in 2020 that meant the August 25th arrival of grapes from our oldest Viognier block. In my verasion post last month, I predicted a start time sometime between August 26th and September 5th. These dates are calculated by adding 36 to 48 days from our veraison date (the range we've seen over the last 15 years between first veraison and first harvest). 2020 produced an interval of just 35 days. If you've been following weather reports from California, you can probably guess why. After a moderate summer that had produced just three 100 degree days as of late July, the last month has seen ten days top the century mark and another ten top 90. Nighttime temperatures were warm too. In late July we hadn't had a single day all summer not drop into at least the 50s. Between August 15th and August 24th, we had nine of the ten nights get down only into the 60s.

Happily, the heat wave broke just as harvest was approaching, and since August 22nd we've seen an average high of 90 (with nothing higher than 95) and an average low of 55. The wildfire smoke we saw between August 19th and 22nd has cleared. And the picks we've done so far have been in ideal conditions. I love the photos that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg took during that night pick, beginning 3am on August 25th. Here are two; you can see the rest on our Instagram feed:

Night Harvest 1 Night Harvest 2

Although we've started harvesting, it's important to remember that most of the vineyard is still some time off. The family of Rhone grapes is diverse enough that we typically figure a two-month stretch for harvest. In fact, there are some grapes that are still only in the middle of veraison (like this Counoise, below) as others are being picked:

Counoise pre-harvest 2020

Looking through our other red grapes shows the range of ripeness levels. Counoise is farthest out, likely six weeks or more, but others still have a ways to go. This Mourvedre is mostly red, but still likely won't be picked for more than a month:

Mourvedre pre-harvest 2020

Grenache is still as much pink as red, with the range of colors and jewel tones characteristic of this, our most beautiful grape. It too is at least a month out.

Grenache pre-harvest 2020

There are grapes that are getting close, most notably Syrah, already dark and starting to soften, and showing its classic conical cluster shape:

Syrah pre-harvest 2020

The other grape that is getting fairly close is Cinsaut. We're only on our second harvest, but one of the reasons why it is more planted than Counoise in France (despite that Counoise is more intense, and they serve similar roles in most blends) is that it ripens a month earlier, before or with Grenache instead of after:

Cinsaut pre-harvest 2020

Finally, Terret Noir, which looks fairly dark at this point but is still quite acidic, and on which we will wait another month or so:

Terret pre-harvest 2020

On the white side, Viognier is obviously first in line. But there are others like Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) that are getting close. Vermentino might come as soon as the end of this week, and the other two should arrive sometime in the first half of September.

Grenache Blanc pre-harvest 2020

The weather is supposed to warm up again as we get to the end of this week, but seems unlikely to reach the heights of two weeks ago. That's fine. We're ready. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the new sights and smells of the cellar as fermentations get going. This lone upright tank (filled with our first Syrah, picked Friday) will soon have plenty of new company.

Syrah in wooden upright Aug 2020


Veraison 2020 reflects our cool July and suggests a (gasp) normal start to harvest

The 2020 growing season has been a lovely antidote to all the chaos out in the world. Unlike many years, we've avoided both heat spikes and extended chilly periods. A graph of the daytime highs since May 1st gives a sense of how things have been distributed through July 22nd. You can see more 80s than 90s, plenty of 70s, and only three days (barely) in triple digits, one each month:

High Temps 2020 Growing Season

July has been particularly nice; our average high temperature so far this month has been 87.6°F. Compare that to the last three years, whose Julys averaged 91°F, 96.5°F, and 95.6°F. And remember, those are the high temperatures each day. Nights have been chilly, and it takes a while each morning for it to warm up. We haven't yet had a night this summer that didn't drop below 60°F, and our average nighttime low has been 47°F. That's kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant. The net result has been gradual progress by the vines and outstanding vine health.

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, 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.

We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until late last week, and it wasn't until this week that there was enough color change to be worth photographing. Now that it's started, I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, usually the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors:

Veraison 2020 - syrah

It's important to note that this cluster is somewhat more advanced than the average one. Even at the top of the hills, many of the Syrah clusters are green. At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, Mourvedre is the one where we're seeing significant color change. If you know that Mourvedre is almost always one of our last grapes to harvest, you might be surprised. But it isn't always last to enter veraison; it just takes a long time to go from first veraison to first harvest:

Veraison 2020 - mourvedre
It took some significant searching by both Neil and me to find any color in Grenache. The best we could do is this one cluster, with a few red berries in a sea of green:

Veraison 2020 - grenache

As for Counoise, it's still completely green. The cluster below is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you more or less the same thing:

Veraison 2020 - counoise

Although the veraison 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 a few weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and probably six weeks until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished 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 and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, we noted first veraison on July 30th in both 2010 and 2019. In 2019, perfect ripening conditions (consistently very-warm-but-not-hot weather) in August and September gave us a short runup before our estate harvest began September 4th. In 2010 vintage, a very cool August delayed the start of harvest compared to 2019 by nearly two full weeks, to September 16th. The last decade is 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
2010 July 30 September 16 48
2011 August 5 September 20 46
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 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 48 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 26th and September 7th. 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. What starts like a trickle quickly becomes a flood, and the view in the vineyard changes daily. Grenache is sure to start to color up soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, 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. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're bottling the last of our 2018 reds, refilling those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2019s, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, while veraison doesn't mean we know exactly when we'll start to see fruit, it is the most useful signpost we have. And we know that the clock is ticking.

Veraison 2020 - pinot


Flowering 2020: A little delayed, but all the more welcome

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track this year. Flowering, which I've been waiting to see for a couple of weeks now, confirms it. This suggests that we're looking at a similarly cool beginning of the growing season to what we saw in 2018 and 2019 (and different from the warmer, earlier beginnings of 2013-2017). Please join me in welcoming the first flowers of the year, a Viognier vine courtesy of Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg:

Viognier flowering 2020

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. Flowering is the second of the four viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically beginning late March or early April, and lasting three weeks or so)
  • Flowering (typically beginning mid-May, lasting a month or so)
  • Veraison (typically beginning late July or early August, lasting as much as 6 weeks)
  • Harvest (typically beginning late August or early September, lasting two months or so)

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given that today was the first day we saw any flowering, we're likely to be enjoying grape bloom until the second half of June.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. So, the two-tenths of an inch of rain we got overnight, and the wind that we're getting today, aren't ideal. Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. Still, we're so early in flowering, with only Viognier showing any blooms, that what really matters is what the weather is like for the next month.

How close are the other grapes to flowering? It depends. A grape like Grenache Blanc looks like it may be a week away, or less:

Grenache Blanc flower cluster May 2020

Whereas with later grapes like Roussanne, Counoise or Mourvedre (below), the flower clusters are just forming, and likely won't bloom for the better part of a month:

Mourvedre flower cluster May 2020

I'll leave you with one more photo of the newly blooming Viognier. It may not look like much, but it's an important milestone nonetheless. Full speed ahead. 

Viognier flowering 2020 2


Budbreak 2020: The World May Be Crazy, but the Vineyard is Right on Time

This winter has very much been one of phases. November was chilly but almost entirely dry, which got us into dormancy early but put us a bit behind in cover crop growth. December was very wet, with 6.66 inches of rain and 13 days with measurable precipitation. January and February stayed chilly (18 below-freezing nights) but saw very little precipitation. The sun and the saturated soil from our wet December produced a vineyard that grew greener by the day, but since wet soils hold temperature better than dry ones, raised the specter of very early bud break if we didn't get more rain soon. But then March turned wet and remained cold, dropping soil temperatures and keeping the vineyard in stasis for longer than I thought possible. The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the whipsaw nature of what we've seen:

Winter 2019-20 Rainfall by Month

The vineyard's long period of dormancy is ending. The proliferation of California poppies are an indicator that the lengthening days and the warm sun will begin to wake up the vines:

Poppies and Dormant Vines March 2020

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.  And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. We only have budbreak in Viognier, the two Grenaches, and (bizarrely) the very top of one Mourvedre block. The below photo is Grenache:

Budbreak in Grenache 2020 Square

This year is later than many years last decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:

2019: Late March
2018: Late March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March

It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. And even where it's begun, with the exception of the earliest Grenache blocks, all there is to see is swollen buds like the one below, from the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir:

Swollen Bud March 2020

It will be at least another few weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Counoise or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

Dormant Head Trained Mourvedre March 2020

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are spurred by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis (i.e. ripen their fruit so animals eat it and distribute the seeds) while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Frost is on our minds. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

You might think that earlier budbreaks increase your risks of frost. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. Is it possible that the same conditions that keep a vineyard dormant longer in the spring raise the risks of frost damage once they finally do sprout? I think so. California weather patterns tend to be long-wave patterns, where conditions are more likely to be similar to what they are now in two weeks than to have changed entirely. That's unlike, say, Vermont, where I grew up, where it always seemed to me that each week's weather could just as easily have been generated by a random weather generator.

That said, looking at the long-term forecast offers some hope. We're supposed to get one more chilly late-winter storm next weekend, but it doesn't seem likely to be cold enough to damage the tops of our hills, and it doesn't seem like we will have progressed far enough for anything else to have sprouted. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2020 vintage.

Budbreak in Grenache with Owl Box