Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
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
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

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 enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better 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, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog


Veraison 2021 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip between a Late August and Early September Start to Harvest

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find the vineyard transformed by veraison. From bright green pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Grenache Head Trained Veraison

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.

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison; in fact, Viognier is largely through. Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc will come next, and Picpoul and Roussanne will bring up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that these Viognier clusters are starting to pick up:

Viognier

The 2021 growing season has continued on the somewhat later-than-normal track that started back at budbreak in late March. We've largely avoided extremes so far, as we were on the southern fringes of the big heat spike that impacted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July. Still, those late-June weeks pushed our degree days well above the month's norms. July (average high 93.4F) has been just about average, historically. The growing season so far:

Degree Days 2021 vs Average

July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. The relatively moderate conditions have kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant, and the vines making steady progress toward harvest. We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until July 21st, but Syrah is moving fast now, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. This cluster is a little ahead of most (which I'd estimate at 50%), mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up:

Syrah Vertical

Mourvedre, even though it's always late to harvest, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Grenache. Although this is one of the more advanced clusters, it's probably 25% of the way through overall. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening:

Mourvedre

Grenache is the next most advanced. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Grenache Head Trained

Cinsaut is a little behind Grenache, at something like 5% of the way into veraison. Note the characteristic large, slightly ovoid berries:

Cinsaut

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find much color. This cluster, with a few pink-purple berries in a sea of green, is about as advanced as it gets. I'd estimate we're around 1% on Counoise, overall:

Counoise
It's important to note that while 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 week or two so before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and more than a month 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, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat gave us just a five week interim. 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
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 August 25 35
2021 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (35 to 46 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 5th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. I asked Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg for what he was thinking about harvest and he noted the relatively light crop, which he attributed to smaller berries and clusters due likely to some combination of our dry, cold winter and some chilly weather during flowering. The light crop suggests that harvest will likely begin on the earlier end of the range above. But he was excited about the vines' health, and thought that we had everything in place for a harvest in good conditions with concentrated flavors.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. We'll use that time in the cellar to finish bottling the last of our 2019 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2020s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, now we wait. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Syrah veraison horizontal


A Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour

Over the last year, I've probably spent more time taking pictures in our vineyard than ever before. Part of the reason is because I'm here all the time; in pre-Covid times I would usually be on the road a week or two each month. I've barely left the county since last March. But more importantly, the pandemic has reinforced to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. Even as our tasting room gets back to normal (we're re-opening indoors July 2nd, if you haven't heard) the reality is that only a tiny percentage of our fans will visit us any week or month. If I can make the experience of being here tangible to people, wherever they are, that's an effort worth making.

June doesn't see the landscape change much, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were just in the middle of flowering. Now the berries, on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are growing fast:

Grenache Clusters

A photo of Bourboulenc gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. We've since been in to shoot-thin this jungle, opening up the canopy to light and air, but the vineyard's health is evident from scenes like these:

Bourboulenc block

We've been using the mild early summer weather to get a few new insectaries established in our low-lying areas. These sections will be home to a handful of species of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects. We'll keep them blooming all summer, so the insect population can get and stay established: 

Beneficial insect planting

I took a swing through our Muscardin block. We harvested a tiny Muscardin crop last year off of the 200 vines that we grafted over in 2019, which amounted to just a single carboy (five gallons) in the cellar. We grafted another 750 vines last year. We'll get some fruit off those new grafts, and a much healthier crop off of what we grafted that first year. You can see how well the grafts have taken (below left) and the nice crop level (below right). We're excited to have enough Muscardin in 2021 to maybe even bottle.

Muscardin grafts year 3 Muscardin canopy

One initiative that we've been focused on this year has been to reduce the tillage in our trellised blocks. We don't feel we have a choice in the dry-farmed blocks, but this Syrah block is a great example of where we just mowed and baled the cover crop for our flock, but left the roots of the grasses undisturbed between the vine rows. We're expecting this to have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions.

Syrah block

Another is our estate biochar production. We've been collecting the canes, vine trunks, and fallen wood from the creekbed and have been using an old stainless steel tank as a biochar kiln. Biochar is a remarkable soil amendment, and has additional benefits in water retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality, as its production eliminates the need for burn piles:

Biochar

We're also replanting. In the photo above, you can see in the background a hillside that we pulled out three years ago because we'd lost so many vines to gophers, virus, and trunk disease. It's been sitting fallow ever since, until now. Just last week, we planted new rows of Grenache and Syrah, alternating rows because we're planning to try something new: trellising the Syrah high and vertically so that they can help shade the Grenache and keep it from being bleached by the sun. But that's for next year; these vines just went in the ground:

New plantings - Cote Maduena

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. You can see the contrast between Syrah (below left) which we expect to harvest in early September, and Counoise (right) which likely won't come in until mid-October:

Syrah clusters

Counoise clusters

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this quince is one of several trees with a heavy crop. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall.

Quince tree

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the new dry-farmed Cinsaut block that we planted two years ago in the site of one of our old rootstock fields. It's looking great, with clusters on many of the vines. In the background is our oldest Syrah block, which I wrote about earlier this spring because we're trying to build its vine density through layering. In between is our compost pile, and behind that our biochar prep area. This one photo encapsulates our past and our future. We're excited about both. 

New Cinsaut block


Flowering 2021: So Far, So Good As the 2021 Growing Season Kicks Off

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were looking at something of a "normal" season this year. Flowering, which began a couple of weeks ago but which has proceeded slowly, confirms that we're still tracking neither notably ahead nor behind what we'd expect, under something close to ideal conditions. Given that we're are roughly at flowering's mid-point, I thought it would be interesting to check on our main red varieties, from most advanced to least. So, starting with Grenache, the only grape on which you can see the beginnings of actual berries:

Flowering 2021 - Grenache

The Syrah is close on Grenache's heels, looking good, already showing its signature cylindrical cluster shape: 

Flowering 2021 - Syrah

The Counoise is actually a bit ahead of where I was expecting it. Often late to sprout and flower, in synch with Mourvedre, it appears a little ahead of usual this year:

Flowering 2021 - Counoise

And finally, Mourvedre, whose flower clusters are formed, but which hasn't yet started to bloom:

Flowering 2021 - Mourvedre

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 marks the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so provides confirmation for our assessment that 2021 has so far been something very close to an "average" year, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights. For these purposes, we measure the growing season as beginning April 1st. The first 53 days of the growing season (through yesterday) compared to the same dates in past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights < 32°F
2011 383 0 24 4
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
Average 2011-2020 480 2.9 19 1.1
2021 499 2 13 2

So, 2021 has been just a touch warmer than average, but with fewer days above 90 and fewer days that didn't make it out of the 60s than our ten-year average. Two frost nights, but only minimal damage and only in a couple of blocks. That's a pretty solid beginning.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy 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. It has been dry but a bit breezy over the past couple of weeks. It's too early to know if this has impacted flowering, but we're cautiously optimistic.

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 we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom until the sometime in mid-June.

So far, so good. Full steam ahead.

Flowering 2021


Budbreak as a Metaphor for Life in 2021: We All Emerge from Dormancy, Slowly

This winter, record-breaking storm in January notwithstanding, has been chilly and dry. The storm systems that have made their way to us outside of that one historic one have tended to be duds, dropping just a few tenths or hundredths of an inch of rain. The cause of this, according to meteorologists, has been the return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of high pressure that was a regular occurrence in our 2012-2016 drought. This long-wave weather pattern is characterized by a powerful high pressure system that sets up in the north Pacific, diverting storms that would otherwise impact California into the Pacific Northwest. The net result has been a lot of very dry months this winter:

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

The main difference between this year's ridge and the one in our 2012-16 drought (particularly the one that characterized the 2013-14 and 2014-15 winters) is that this year's set up further west. A high pressure system set up over or just west of California leads to dry, warm weather. But this year's was far enough west to produce a recurring pattern in which storms rotating around the ridge tended to pass just east of California, pummeling the Rocky Mountains with snow, bringing arctic weather as far south as Texas, and producing dry but cold conditions in California. A look at the number of below-freezing days this winter shows that this was one of our frostier recent seasons, with 41 below-freezing readings at our weather station so far. This number ties for our most since 2012-13, and we still have nearly two months of potentially frosty nights to go:

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

As recently as week-before-last, we were chased inside during our blending trials by hail, and we had nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s the morning of March 16th. But the last few days have felt different. It's been a week since our last frost night. And after nearly a month where daytime highs didn't get out of the 60s, Saturday hit 76, Sunday hit 80, and Monday hit 77. So, I wasn't surprised to see a lot of budbreak when I got out into the vineyard this morning. Viognier was the most advanced:

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

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. This year, it seems like lots of the grapes are going at once. I saw sprouting in Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, and even Counoise (below):

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

Budbreak 2021 is happening at an average time, historically, and at almost exactly the same time as last year. We've had some extremes in recent years; we're a month later than our record-early 2016, but two weeks earlier than our latest-ever start to the season in 2012, when we saw 57 frost nights, 21 after February 1st. Here's our information for when we first recorded significant budbreak the last dozen years:

2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of 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

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. And even with the quick start, more than half the vineyard is still dormant. This Roussanne bud is indistinguishable from what it would have looked like in January:

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

Budbreak happens when it does largely due to increases in soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are waiting for the annual signals that it's safe to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. The colder the temperatures and the more water in the soils, the longer the vines stay dormant. As winter rains ease, days lengthen, and the sun becomes more intense, those soils start to warm up, and the vines begin a race to reproduce. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing risks and benefits. Emerge too early, and they risk suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost. Sprout too late, and they might not have enough time to ripen their fruit, which is necessary so that animals eat it and distribute the seeds.

We worry about frost too. 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 because of how evenly the vineyard appears to be coming out of dormancy, we're already likely past the point where we could safely withstand even a moderate frost. 

We'll be trying to stay one step ahead of the new growth to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, last week was their last pass through the Grenache block below. We may only have another week or so in the late-sprouting varieties, but we'll give as many blocks as possible one last graze:

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. 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. Of course, it's spring, which is the most unpredictable season here. We'll see.

Looking forward, we should be OK for this week, with warm, dry weather in the forecast. Next week it looks like it might be wet. It's often in the aftermath of spring storm systems that frost risk builds. So, while we would love more rain, we'll be on high alert after. Fingers crossed, please.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. We've all spent the last year in various forms of dormancy, trying to keep sheltered and safe. With the hopefulness of declining Covid case rates in California, expanding supply of and access to vaccines, and good government support as businesses reopen, I feel like we're all coming out of hibernation. I have high hopes for this year. Please join me in welcoming the 2021 vintage.

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache