As we ease out of harvest, we welcome the brief and beautiful Paso Robles autumn

Since our heat wave broke on September 10th, it's felt more like fall than summer. Our average high has been 84F, and the nighttime lows have dropped into the 40s more than half the nights. The days are shorter. We've seen some clouds, and even one day (this past Saturday) where the marine layer was so thick the sun never came out. We got our first (small) rainstorm, about two months earlier than normal. If we'd had a cool summer, we might be worried that the conditions weren't going to allow the grapes still on the vine to ripen. Of course, we had a warm summer and an early start to harvest, and then the most long-lasting heat wave in our history as we entered September. Together, these conditions accelerated ripening to the point that we were roughly three weeks ahead of normal before it got cool. So, no worries about later grapes not getting ripe. But as we wind down through the last week or so of harvest, the grapevines appear to have noticed the fall-like weather and have begun their brief, beautiful autumn transformation. It's stunning, and I thought I'd share a little of it, starting with Mourvedre in the block we call Scruffy Hill:

Looking west through Grenache and Mourvedre

The vineyard colors combined with the lower sun angles and a touch of humidity in the air to produce a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west through some Syrah canopy toward the Santa Lucia Mountains:

Hills through Mourvedre foliage

If you haven't seen wine country in its autumn colors, it's different both from the high-contrast green-and-gold summer and from the softer, yell0w-green and dark brown winter season. And fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you get a frost, after which and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But given that it's rare for us to get frosts before mid-November, it seems like this year's might last a bit longer. So you'll have a little longer to catch view of Counoise vines looking like this:

Colorful Counoise vine

Often, these colors don't show up until all the grapes are off the vines. Not this year. In addition to Counoise, we've still got both Grenache (left) and Mourvedre (right) on the vines. That won't be true for much longer, as we're likely to come through our last blocks before the end of the week, but it's pretty:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre clusters

It's been a luxury letting these grapes wait to gather a little extra hang-time. Everything could have been picked a week or two ago, if we'd wanted. But the fall-like weather has meant that we can leave the remaining clusters out to get a little more complexity and a little more sugar without worrying that the acids will fall out. That's a little-known aspect of the Paso Robles climate. By the time you get to October, the nights are typically chilly and the days, which can still get warm, are short. That's one of the reasons that it's such a good spot for late-ripening grapes like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and the like.

It's worth pointing out that not all the grapes color up like a sugar maple. Grenache is famously green, often all the way into November. I like this next shot both for how well it shows Grenache's ongoing vigor, but for how clearly it shows the chalky soils we love so much:

Grenache vines and chalky soil

One last photo, my favorite of the session, combines everything I love about the current moment. It's looking at the bottom of a head-trained Mourvedre vine, including the gnarled trunk and one of the large, loose clusters characteristic of the grape, with the colorful foliage of the rest of the block in the background:

Mourvedre cluster and colorful foliage

With benign weather on the horizon, we might have another month or more of this look. Of course, we'd love it to rain any time, and the more the better. But that's not likely until the end of the month. So, if you have the good fortune to be here over the coming weeks, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home.


Three Tales Intertwined: One Begins, One Continues, and One Finds a Home

By Ian Consoli

Every harvest season our team receives some temporary help to lessen the load of the hundreds of tons of grapes that flood through the cellar doors over the course of 8-10 weeks. The individuals that join us bring an assortment of stories and expertise. Some come to see wine production for the first time, some add another harvest under their belt, and some know what they want and see Tablas Creek's Harvest as a way to get there. This year's interns represent a variation of all three of these categories.

I enjoy sitting with the harvest interns every year to discuss where they came from, how they ended up at Tablas Creek, and where they are going next. This year we have three interns, Louisa, Michael, and Erin, whose answers are divided by color. I'm excited for you to meet them.

Three Tablas Creek internsFrom Left: Louisa, Michael, Erin

Who are you?

My name is Louisa, and I'm a Harvest intern at Tablas Creek right now.

Michael Mensing.

Erin Mason.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up near San Diego, in Del Mar, California.

I lived in Paso Robles for my whole childhood. My family moved here 30 years ago, so they've been here for a while. I graduated from Templeton High in 2015.

Mostly in Southeast Georgia. I lived the longest in Atlanta, so I claim Atlanta as where I'm from, but I've lived and grown up in the southeast my whole life. I ended up in California when I came out to work a harvest with Ian Brand in 2019. I've been living up and down the state ever since.

How did you get into wine?

I wasn't exposed to wine growing up, but I discovered it in college. I took a class at Cal Poly SLO called The Spirituality of Wine. And that got me interested in learning more about wine.

I've been drinking wine since I turned 21. When I moved back here from Australia two and a half years ago, I wanted to get into wine. I started researching wineries around the area here in Paso and got lucky enough to start working in the Tablas Creek tasting room. That's when I started working with and studying wine.

I was running beverage programs for a restaurant group in Atlanta. I wanted to connect on a different level with wine, less as a buyer and more with production and viticulture. I quit my job of 10 years, put all my stuff in storage, packed up my car, and came out to work harvest. I didn't have anything lined up after. I have been piecing together seasonal work and making it work for the last three years.

Louisa in the VineyardLouisa in the vineyard

How did you end up working Harvest with us?

My good friend Kayja worked the last two harvests here. She inspired me to apply for a position at Tablas. This is my first grape harvest, and it's going good.

I have wanted to work Harvest ever since I started here. Last year I worked Harvest at another winery, so this year I chatted with Chelsea and had a meeting with the cellar crew. We all got along, and here we are.

I came to Tablas because of the regenerative program and my interest in the sheep grazing the vineyard. I wanted to look deeper into a position involved with that. Harvest is a way for me to work and see if Tablas is a good long-term fit.

What was it like working our busiest harvest week ever?

It was a lot of grapes <laughs>. Yeah, it was a little bit overwhelming to look out in the parking lot and just see bins and bins and bins of grapes. But it was cool seeing how everyone worked together to make it happen and get all those grapes processed.

Exhilarating and tiresome and fun.

It's like working all of Harvest in one week <laughs>. It was fine. It was hard, long hours, and kind of grueling, but everybody was in good spirits, well organized, and efficient, which made it a lot easier. Everybody's hands-on, there's not really like a hierarchy of who's doing what, so everybody's in there working until it's done. But yeah, it was tough. <Laughs>

Michael and Erin on the sorting tableErin and Michael on the sorting table

What were you doing during the week?

Mainly on the sorting table and doing cap management, like pump overs and pulse airs to keep the ferments going. I like doing the DMAs the most, which is like getting the temperature and the density of all the different lots and stages they're in, and that's been really fun.

Hmm, that's a good question. A little bit of everything. I mean everything from cleaning tanks to processing fruit to just everything. They were long days.

Michael doing a punchdownMichael doing a punchdown

What has been your best memory from Harvest 2021?

Probably one of those really long days during those couple of hectic weeks. We had days we worked from 7am to almost 9pm. We had a water fight at the end of the night, <laughs>, which was super fun. Oh, and harvest lunches are great. Definitely a highlight.

Every day for lunch, we sit down and pull a couple picnic tables into the cellar. Then Winemaker Neil Collin's wife Marcie comes with food for everybody at about 12. We pick out a couple of bottles of wine, sit down for an hour or two, enjoy each other's company, and have food.

Seeing the first estate fruit come in. And just seeing the quality of fruit and the taste and being wowed by that.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

I really like the Tablas Creek Dianthus. It's just really, really beautiful.

Probably the one I had with good company and good friends. There are so many good wines in the world, too many to choose from. I don't know if it could be my first Chablis, the 2000 Chateau Montelena, or the 2006 Beaucastel, I don't know. I don't remember the wines as much as I do the company I share them with. I've had a $2 bottle of wine that was absolutely fantastic because I shared it with great people.

One of the most memorable bottles is a 2007 Chateau Rayas, which was unlike any wine I've ever tasted. It was incredible and super alive. The experience of tasting it next to A Tribute to Grace 2007 from Santa Barbara Highlands, the first wine that Angela Osborne ever made, was really a cool experience.

Erin in the cellarErin working in the cellar

What's next for you?

I'm going to work for an organization called NOLS, an outdoor education school. I worked for them in Alaska this past summer doing backpacking and sea kayaking expeditions. This winter, I'm going to work for them down in Baja, doing sailing expeditions.

After Harvest, I'll go to Napa for a couple weeks to do my WSET level three. Then I'll go to Portland and check out the Oregon wine region for a little bit. Then I'll be back here in the tasting room. I hope to do a harvest in Europe somewhere next fall, potentially Italy, Portugal or France. But you never know what will happen.

Aside from a massage and recovery, hopefully, staying on here at Tablas and diving deeper into the regenerative organic certification. I like it here. Everybody seems super happy to work here. It's a good sign that people have worked here as long as they have. The property's beautiful, and everybody seems really generous. There's a lot of open-mindedness, curiosity, and support which I think is really important. Especially because there's no finish line or endpoint in regenerative agriculture. It's something that you're always going to be striving to do what's best, and that'll change and evolve. It seems like Tablas as a company has been able to do that in and of itself. So it gives me confidence in where the regenerative program could go.


The vineyard and harvest impacts -- positive and negative -- of our unusual September rain

It's definitely been a month with interesting weather. Just three weeks ago I was writing a blog Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave. And that heat wave was intense, with ten days in a row over 100°F, though we feel like we escaped the worst impacts that were felt in some of the regions to our north. Now, a week after that heat wave broke, we got our first real rain of the 2022-23 winter, and not from some tropical monsoonal moisture that just wandered a little far north, as we sometimes see in late summer here. No, we got a real winter storm plunging out of the Gulf of Alaska, bringing significant rain to the northern two-thirds of California:

While harvest rain is rare here in Paso Robles, it's not unheard of. In the last two decades, the only other year we received September rain was in 2010, but we got rain before the end of October in 2004, 2006, 2021, and most notably 2009, when we received nearly ten inches on October 13th. And it's more common in other wine-growing regions around the world; Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has harvest rain most years, as September and October are the two rainiest months of the year. Walking around the vineyard this morning shows a very non-Californian scene, with mist in the air and droplets of water on the leaves and clusters of the vines that still have fruit. Check out Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right):

Mourvedre cluster after the rain Counoise cluster after the rain

It's not like we got an ocean of rain; we got about a half inch overnight, with potentially another quarter-inch coming today. But the whole experience is rare enough that we've been getting tons of questions about what we expect, and we assembled this morning to discuss what's likely to happen. So I thought it might be helpful if I broke down our risks.

  • Dilution. When grapevines get rain late in the growing season, some of that water is pumped into the berries. That reduces both the percentage of sugar and the percentage of acid in the grapes, at least temporarily. As long as you get dry, warm weather after, that dilution is usually short-lived. And given how dry the summer has been, it's not always a bad thing. If you were following us during the heat wave, you know that we pre-emptively gave some water to our most heat-sensitive blocks, figuring that the minor amount of dilution, if it happened, was better than the alternative of having the vines shut down or even pull water out of the berries, creating hard, unripe raisins. Risk of this being an issue: low.
  • Rot. Fungus thrives in moisture. Luckily, most of the time during the growing season here, moisture is in short supply. But when it rains it offers any available rot spores a chance to grow and spread. Key to whether or not this happens is what comes after the rain. If it turns dry and you get a breeze, the moisture on the clusters is gone before any rot has a chance to take hold. If not, and particularly if it gets warm and stays humid, things can go south in a hurry. Looking at the forecast suggests that while today will remain cool, overcast, and showery, tomorrow and especially Wednesday look clear, dry, and breezy. That's good. On the flip side, the clusters and berries have already taken some damage from the heat, and are starting to soften, offering more opportunities for rot spores to get inside the grapes than you'd normally see this time of year. Risk of this being an issue: moderate.
  • Lack of access. Finally, an issue with wet weather is that it makes it difficult and messy to get tractors into the vineyard. Most times of year that's just an inconvenience; if you can't get into the vineyard to prune, or spread compost, or weed, it's usually not a big deal to wait a few days or even a few weeks. But during harvest, access is more important as grape chemistry can change on a daily basis, and if you can't get into the vineyard to pick you run the risk of missing your window. Mitigating this likelihood is that the grapes don't ripen particularly fast in this weather, and the roughly half-inch of rain isn't enough to saturate the deeper layers of the soil. A few days of dry, breezy weather and this won't be a problem. Risk of this being an issue: low.

 The impacts of the rain aren't all negative. In fact, there are some real positives. They include:

  • Helping the harvested vineyard blocks store energy for dormancy. While we do have some worries about the fruit still hanging, the impact of this rain on the two-thirds of the vineyard that has already been picked is nothing but positive. Those vines have expended a lot of resources getting fruit ripe over the past five months. We still have a couple of months of photosynthesis to go before they go dormant with the first hard freeze. It's normal for us to go through after we've finished picking and give the blocks that we can irrigate a bit of water anyway, to help them continue to photosynthesize and store up resources for next year. This rain does that for us, and more broadly than we ever could. 
  • Giving the grapevines with fruit still hanging the energy to make a final push. We've often seen when we've gotten early rain that after a few days where numbers (sugar and acid concentrations) retreat due to dilution, the vines then appear to get something of a second wind and make more progress toward ripeness than they had been doing before the rain. It's probably intuitive as to why. These vines have been pushing hard, with their most limited resource being water. Giving them the water that they need helps them photosynthesize more productively, and that photosynthesis translates into ripening.  
  • Cleaning the dust off the vines, clusters, and roads. It's been a long, hot, dusty summer. We've been running water trucks from our wetland area over the vineyard roads, trying to keep the dust down so that it doesn't settle on the vines (reducing photosynthesis in the same way in would on a home solar panel) and clusters (where it ultimately ends up settling to the bottom of tanks and barrels as a part of the lees). But while it's impractical to spray off the whole vineyard, that's what this rainstorm effectively did. Hey, we'll take it.

So while the rain isn't an uncomplicated boon, neither is it an unmitigated disaster. What happens over the next few days will determine whether we dodge the risk of rot, or whether we need to redouble our efforts and get the remaining grapes off the vines as fast as we can. If we did have to pick fast, at least everything is pretty much ready. The biggest issue would be space in the cellar, and we're trying to make good use of this break to press off tanks that have reached sufficient extraction to make room for what's coming. But if we get good weather later this week, this could actually end up being a good thing. Please keep your fingers crossed for dry and breezy starting tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unexpected misty respite in what's usually a hot, dusty season. I'll leave you with two last photos so you can enjoy it, too.

Long view over Tannat after the rain

Long view after the rain


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. 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 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.


Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave

So far this harvest season, the weather has been just about perfect. It's been warm (average high temp 93.5°F) but not too warm (highest high just 102.8°F, and just 48 hours over 95°F). Nights have been chilly (average low temp 54.7°F) but not too chilly (lowest low temp 47.7°F). Each warm stretch has been followed by a cool-off. You can get a sense of this by looking at the daily temperature ranges since August 1st:

Daily Temperatures August 2022

All that moderation is exactly what you want for your vines as they make that final push toward harvest. Unfortunately, it looks like we're getting something rather different starting tomorrow. A heat wave is coming, and it's a big one. The New York Times is calling it "brutal", the Washington Post is calling it "record-threatening", and the San Francisco Chronicle is calling it "dangerously hot". Here in Paso Robles, our forecast is for a string of days that might touch 110°F:

Forecast highs heat wave 2022

Many parts of California are looking at temperatures that will exceed seasonal norms by 12-14°C (22-25°F) in what is already a warm time of year. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) gives a great graphical depiction just how widespread the temperature anomaly will be across the western United States. A shout out to Daniel Swain and his blog Weather West, where I found this image, and which I consider required reading for anyone interested in California weather or climate:

Temperature Anomaly Heat Wave August 2022

A couple of mitigating factors give me some hope that we might escape the heat wave's worst effects. First, it's not quite as hot out here as in the town of Paso Robles. So if the forecast for town is 110°F, it's more likely to be 106°F or 107°F here. Those few degrees help. Second, the vineyard looks really healthy this year. That vigor is going to be put to the test in coming days, but at least we're starting from a good position. Third, it looks like the nights are supposed to cool off. Even at the height of the high pressure ridge, it looks like the town of Paso Robles is going to drop into the 60s. Out here it's usually 3-5°F cooler at night than in town. So the vines will still have a chance to refresh themselves a bit at night. And finally, it's late enough in the year that we have somewhat shorter days and longer nights than we would if it were mid-summer. The twelve hours and 57 minutes between sunrise and sunset is an hour and 38 minutes less heating time than we would have had on our longest day of the year.

On the other side of the ledger, we're in our third year of drought here in California, it's late enough in the growing season that even in a normal year we'd expect the top several feet of soil to be dry and the vines to be under high stress, and we had another heat event in July that already resulted in some losses.

However it shakes out, it's going to be a challenge, and our tools to deal with the heat are limited. The best option is to bring anything that's ready or nearly so into the cellar and get them into tanks or barrels where the outside temperature doesn't matter. Over the last two days, we've brought in nearly 47 tons of grapes, or roughly 10% of what we expect to do this entire harvest season, including these Grenache Blanc bins on our crushpad today:

Grenache Blanc on crushpad

We'll be continuing to bring in grapes through the wave, starting early in the pre-dawn hours with light towers and headlamps when it's still cool and continuing until probably only around 10am, when temperatures get high enough that we worry about the effects of oxidation on the newly harvested clusters. A big piece of what's coming in next will be Syrah, which is ready to go and looking amazing:

Syrah clusters

But there are grapes that are still a long way from being ready. Heck, there are grapes like Counoise that haven't even finished veraison. Harvesting those isn't a viable option, and it's important to remember that even with this week's push we're still only about a third of the way through harvest. So we've been doing something you rarely see after veraison and turning on our irrigation lines in our most heat-sensitive varieties, trying to give them the reserves they need to withstand the heat. I posted about this on Twitter today:

We're trying to avoid raisining, where the vines activate a self-defense mechanism by pulling the liquid out of their berries and using it to replace what they're losing to evaporation and photosynthesis. The resulting hard, sour raisins won't reinflate, costing us production. This Mourvedre cluster shows both that there are grapes still finishing veraison and a few of these premature raisins, the result of an earlier heat wave in mid-July that caused modest losses in Mourvedre:

Mourvedre cluster with raisining

Those two options are pretty much our entire toolkit, at least in the short term. And, of course, we don't even have one of those options on the 40% of our vineyard without irrigation infrastructure. In the longer term, the farming choices we make can help build the vines' resilience to heat and drought. Focusing on dry-farming builds deeper root systems, which have more reliable access to water and are less impacted by what's going on at the surface. Regenerative farming helps build the organic content of our soils, which then hold more moisture. And Biodynamics (along with the regenerative practices) produces more robust vines that have greater reserves to draw from. 

Fingers crossed, please, that it's enough. 


With its August 17th beginning, 2022 becomes our earliest-ever start to harvest

By Ian Consoli

In the early morning of August 17th, we brought in our earliest estate-fruit pick ever with just under four tons of Viognier. Our first purchased fruit came in later that the same day: 4.25 tons of Syrah from Fralich Vineyard. And just like that, the 2022 harvest began! We steadily brought in fruit over the next week before temperatures cooled a bit the last few days, and everything slowed down.

The next day saw our annual "Cellar Crew Day" at the Haas Vineyard, source of our Full Circle Pinot Noir. This tradition allows the whole cellar team to be a part of the picking process before the thick of harvest. It's also an opportunity for our core cellar team to better get to know the harvest interns. A few photos from that pick, beginning with Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 31st harvest here at Tablas Creek, monitoring the bins of Pinot Noir:

David Maduena

Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi in her 14th harvest at Tablas Creek picks alongside one of this year's cellar interns, Louisa:

Chelsea and Intern harvesting

Seeing the first bins of fruit on the crush pad is always a welcome sight:

Syrah on the Crushpad

Unlike last year, where temperatures dropped in late August and we waited a week between our first estate pick and our second, this year is steadily moving along. After the Viognier came in on Wednesday, we harvested half a bin of Roussanne from Jewel Ridge on Thursday, Vermentino on Saturday, then Grenache Blanc and Syrah on Monday. Over the past week, we have maintained a daily high of around 100 degrees with just a slight dip over the weekend into the 80s, maintaining prime ripening conditions for the fruit this time of year:

Our estate fruit isn't the only thing we are keeping track of. We source from about ten vineyards throughout Paso Robles for our Patelin program, and with these kinds of ripening conditions, viticulturist Jordan Lonborg needs to pull samples from all of them a couple of times a week to ensure we pick at just the right time. Every time we finish picking from one of these partner vineyards, there's one less stop Jordan needs to make in the morning. Right now, he's visiting every one of them. Here's his haul from Wednesday morning:

Samples

It's early, but it looks like we may be seeing another lower-yielding vintage. That’s not surprising, given the drought conditions and the frosts we saw in April and May, but we’d hoped it might be more localized. Instead, Winemaker Neil Collins noted that yields are down on both the estate and Patelin picks so far from a year ago, and a year ago yields were down from the previous year. Still, quality looks very strong.

Although an earlier-than-normal harvest does come with complications for staff (the cellar team typically takes a bit of time off before the rush of harvest), the steady pace at which this harvest started bodes well for the next couple of months. We're looking at temperatures in the 90s over the next week with a slight dip over the weekend. This is the type of weather pattern we hope for at this time of year, and we're looking forward to what next week will bring.

What's next? It seems like we might get a little more Syrah at the end of the week. In the meantime, we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar and this slow, steady start to harvest. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning. I'll leave you with the Syrah clusters that look like they're coming next.

Syrah Clusters


Comparing Clusters and Vine Growth in Our Principal Red Rhone Varieties as Harvest 2022 Aproaches

This is a time of year when things move fast in the vineyard. In just the last couple of weeks, we've gone from just starting veraison to more than halfway through. Large swaths of fully-colored grapes don't look much different than they will at harvest, and they're getting tasty. Even better, the vines themselves still look great. Typically, by mid-August some of the lower vigor grapes (I'm looking at you, Mourvedre) start to look a little tired, with some yellowing or browning of the leaves. Not this year. Throughout the vineyard, the vines look deep green and vigorous. That bodes well for their ability to make a strong finishing push.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at our main red grape varieties, both cluster and vine, to get a comparative sense of how they grow and what they look like now. So I took a walk through our Scruffy Hill block, which we planted back in 2005 and 2006 with the idea it would someday be a vineyard block designate, and got representative photos of the four red Rhone varieties we had available to plant in that era. I then went to a new head-trained Cinsaut block to complete the quintet of grapes we think of as our core set. I'll share them in the order in which we expect them to arrive in the cellar, starting with Syrah and finishing with Mourvedre. Without further ado:

Syrah

There are Syrah blocks at the tops of our hills that look like they might only be a couple of weeks from harvest. But our Scruffy Hill section will likely be longer than that; you can see that the cluster I photographed still has a green berry, and there are other green clusters in the background. But overall I'd guess we're 80% of the way through veraison in Syrah. The grapes are characteristically blue-black, and the clusters modest in size and roughly cylindrical. In terms of the vine, you can see its vigor and its sprawling growth pattern, which is why we train it up high. That way the long canes can arc down like an umbrella instead of trailing on the ground. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Syrah Pre-harvest 2022 - Syrah Vine

Grenache

Grenache has made a lot of progress through veraison in the last few weeks, and I'd estimate it's past the 50% mark vineyard-wide. You can see in the cluster I chose its relatively pale purple color and its tightly bunched, large clusters of fairly large grapes. The vine is also characteristic: stocky and robust, looking twice as old as its 16-year age, with a large number of relatively stiff canes shooting out at a variety of angles and a plentiful supply of grapes. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Grenache Pre-harvest 2022 - Grenache vine

Cinsaut

Cinsaut may actually come in before Grenache, but the only head-trained block that we have is in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard and was impacted by the frosts we saw this spring. So, the vine's progress is a bit behind where it should be, and where the trellised blocks are elsewhere in the vineyard. But the cluster is still coloring up nicely, with a mix of colors between green and medium purple. The range of grape sizes is unusual (it's a condition colorfully known as "hens and chicks") and appears to be a symptom of the difficult weather it had during flowering. The vine, even in its youth, is already showing the long canes characteristic of Cinsaut and the vigor and upright growth pattern that made it so successful in both Mediterranean Europe and old Californian head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards. We expect it to come in roughly in synch with Grenache. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Cinsaut Pre-harvest 2022 - Cinsaut Vine

Counoise

There are still Counoise blocks where you have to do some hunting around to find purple berries, but the Scruffy Hill block was at about 50%. This cluster shows the large berries that made Counoise a prized table grape before the development of seedless grapes, and its fairly pale color. The vine shows the moderate vigor and upright growth characteristic of Counoise. We don't expect to see our first Counoise grapes in the cellar until early October.

Pre-harvest 2022 - Counoise Pre-harvest 2022 - Counoise Vine

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre blocks, in various stages of ripening.  The Scruffy Hill Mourvedre block is lower down the hillside, and it's relatively early into veraison. But there are hilltop trellised blocks that are nearly done. Still, even when it finishes veraison Mourvedre takes a while to get to ripeness, and we're not likely to see much if any in the cellar until October. The photo below shows the grape's relatively loose clusters, which helps it shrug off early rains, should we be so lucky, and the medium-dark color that the red berries have achieved shows why it produces darker wines than Counoise, Cinsaut, or Grenache. The vine is typical of what we see in the block this year, although as I mentioned in the intro it's unusually green compared to many other years. I would normally expect our Mourvedre vines to look more or less like the Counoise photo above, but this year they have longer canes and more leafy vigor. That's as good a sign as any that the vineyard has unusual vigor and is well positioned for this finishing push.

Pre-harvest 2022 - Mourvedre Pre-harvest 2022 - Mourvedre Vine

A quick note about this year's variability

Although as I noted in a few weeks ago we're likely to challenge our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, I'm starting to believe that it's likely to be quite an extended harvest season. Thanks to the frosts we got in March, April, and May, there's more difference than I'm used to seeing between the tops of the hills (which avoided the frosts and sprouted early) and the bottoms (which either stayed dormant through the frosts or were frozen back when they emerged). And we're used to a long harvest, typically lasting around eight weeks between the arrival of the first and last fruit. This year may be longer.

Still, I'm feeling optimistic about things. We're well set up to handle uneven or delayed ripening, since we give our field crew year-round employment and pick selectively while making multiple passes through our blocks even in a normal year. If we're going to have a 10-week lag between our first and last grapes, it's good to get an early start. And if you were designing perfect ripening weather, what we've gotten the last couple of weeks and what's forecast for next week (days topping out in the upper 80s to upper 90s, with onshore flow and cool nights) would be exactly what you'd wish for.

Let's get this party started.


Veraison 2022 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip: Will This Be Our Earliest Harvest Ever?

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find a very different vineyard than the one I left. Instead of growing but 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:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache 2

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape development where the berries stop accumulating mass and start 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. This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although this week has been an exception, the last month of the 2022 growing season has been warm. In the 35 days since the calendar turned to summer, our average high temperature has been 93.5°F. Eight days have topped 100°F, with another fifteen topping out in the 90's. Just one day failed to make it into the 80's. But July is almost always hot in Paso Robles, and that average is less than what we saw in July 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021. And I was pleased with the vigor and health of the vines in my rambles around it today and yesterday. July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. Not this year, or at least not yet. But it's definitely been warm enough to push veraison into high gear.

We spotted our first color in the vineyard on July 12th. Now, two weeks later, Syrah is moving fast, 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. The cluster on the right is a little ahead of average, mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up, while the cluster on the left is more typical:

Veraison 2022 - Syrah

Grenache is next in line. 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:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache

Mourvedre, even though it's typically the last to be harvested, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Counoise and only slightly behind Grenache. 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. This cluster is one of the more advanced ones, and I'd estimate it's only at 5% veraison overall:

Veraison 2022 - Mourvedre

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find any 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:

Veraison 2022 - Counoise

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison. The grapes turn from green to something a little yellower, and soften and start to get sweet. They also become more translucent. The process happens over a continuum as it does in the reds. Viognier goes first, followed by Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, with Picpoul and Roussanne bringing up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that this Viognier cluster is starting to pick up:

Veraison 2022 - Viognier

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 and low yields 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
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 August 24 34
2022 July 12 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (34 to 45 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 15th and August 26th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall, influenced as well by the crop levels, since lighter crops ripen faster than heavier ones. It looks like we're seeing medium crop levels this year, better than last year but not at the levels we saw in a year like 2017, which suggests we'd trend toward the earlier end of the range above, but maybe not challenge last year's record-short duration. Still, we have a chance of besting 2016 for our earliest-ever beginning to harvest. 

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. I spent some time yesterday with our Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg, and he's excited about the vines' health. It looks like we lost a little crop to sunburn during the heat spikes, but nothing crippling, and the vigor in the vineyard should give the vines the ability to make a strong finishing push. In a few weeks, we'll start sampling the early varieties, looking for the moment when the flavors are fully developed and the balance of sugars and acids ideal. In the cellar, we'll use that time to finish bottling the last of our 2020 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2021s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.  

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

Veraison 2022 - Syrah Horizontal


The Vineyard at the Summer Solstice: Bursting with Vigor and at Peak Green

One of the benefits of the last two pandemic years is that I'm spending more time in the vineyard than I was before. Some of that is because I'm rarely out of town, but it's equally because our Covid experience has really driven home to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. That has led to some of my favorite content, like the #grapespotlight deep-dives we did on Instagram and on Facebook last year, and the related #grapeminute YouTube video series we're working on now. But this blog remains the best avenue I have to share the seasonal changes whose rhythms determine the landscape that surrounds us and the vintage character that we'll come to know in coming months and years.

Late May and early June doesn't see big changes in look or feel, 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 in the middle of flowering. Now the berries on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are pea-sized and growing fast:

Solstice 2022 - Grenache berries

A photo of Syrah gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. The principal work now in the vineyard is shoot-thinning, opening up the canopy to light and air and keeping mildew pressures (which usually peak around this time of year) under control:

Solstice 2022 - Syrah Block

If you're expecting bare dirt between the vineyard rows, the view above might look messy. But reducing tillage is one tenet of regenerative farming, and we've been increasingly replacing disking or spading the surface with mowing and mulching the cover crop. This should 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 and the potential for erosion. The Vermentino block below is another good example (as well as a great illustration of the vineyard's vigor):

Solstice 2022 - Vermentino block

I took a swing through the sections most damaged by our May frost, and was encouraged to see that the vines had re-sprouted leaves. We won't get crop off of these blocks, but the canopy growth should be enough to allow them to store up energy and come back strong next year:

Solstice 2022 - Frost Recovery

Also encouraging was the condition of the new blocks that we planted last year. I was worried that the young vines in these low-lying blocks were killed by the frost, but most of them, including the Counoise vines below, did manage to re-sprout. We'll still see some vine mortality, but less than I originally thought:

Solstice 2022 - New Counoise block

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. For example, even Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), neither of which will likely come in until mid-October, are both showing nice clusters of little berries:

Solstice 2022 - Roussanne berriesSolstice 2022 - Mourvedre berries

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. 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. For whatever reason, this year's cherry season has been disappointing, and the stone fruit (peaches, apricots, and nectarines) aren't carrying much fruit. But the apples and quinces are loaded: 

Solstice 2022 - Quince

The fruit trees aren't the only things we've planted in our quest for biodiversity. Last year we planted several insectaries, with flowering plants that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Those were just getting started a year ago, but are thriving now:

Solstice 2022 - Insectaries

I'll leave you with a photo I particularly love, of a dry-farmed Grenache block with vines whose health is unmistakable. That exuberance is everywhere in the vineyard right now. The noteworthy vine health, good fruit set, and larger clusters combine to suggest that even with the losses from the frost, we're likely to see a more plentiful harvest than we saw in 2021. And that's fueling some pretty noteworthy exuberance on our part, too.

Solstice 2022 - Grenache vine


Flowering and Fruit Set Provide Reasons for Optimism After a Challenging Beginning to 2022

At the beginning of the growing season, no news is usually good news. If you avoid frost, and avoid cold or wet or windy weather during flowering, you can expect to see fruit set (when the berries start to form) roughly two months after budbreak. And in the sections of the vineyard where we avoided frost, that's what we're seeing. This Syrah vine is a good example:

Fruit Set 2022 - Syrah

2022, however, has not been a news-free spring. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our frosts. And though most of the vineyard avoided dropping below freezing, it got cold everywhere, which has lesser but still important impacts on the vines' ability to fertilize the flowers and turn them into grapes.

Flowering and fruit set mark 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 highlights the extent to which 2022 has so far been an outlier, 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 where temperatures bottomed out at or below 32 at our weather station. The first 53 days of the growing season (April 1st - May 23st), through the third weekend of May which we usually take as the unofficial end of frost season, provide a good marker. Here's how 2022 compares to past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights ≤ 32°F
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
2021 499 2 13 2
Average 2012-2021 491.6 3.1 17.9 0.9
2022 554 6 13 3

You can see that 2022 has been a bit warmer than average overall, but the devil is in the details (and the frost nights). We had two of our 90+ days in early April, which meant that things were far enough out that the April 12th and 13th frost nights had more impact than they might have in a cooler year. And the other frost night on May 10th was so late that everything was out far enough to take some significant damage, and the four chilly, windy days that preceded it, none of which got into the 70s, were in a position to impact flowering in our early varieties. 

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. So it wasn't a shock that when I explored our Grenache blocks I found evidence of shatter:

Fruit Set 2022 - Grenache

Is this a catastrophe? No. A little shatter in Grenache can actually be a good thing, because it opens up the clusters and means we don't have to do as much fruit thinning on this famously productive grape. And that seems to be the degree we're seeing, with impacts in the 20%-50% range. It's additional good news is that I couldn't find any evidence of shatter in anything else.

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 we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom for another couple of weeks. Our late-sprouting varieties like Roussanne are still in peak flowering:

Flowering 2022 - Roussanne

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. 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, weeks after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. We might not know where everything is going. But for our early grapes, like the Viognier below, things are well on their way.

Fruit Set 2022 - Viognier