2023 Harvest Recap: Late, but Worth the Wait

On Thursday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2023 harvest. Well, mostly, at least. We completed the last pick. There's still some of that pick that is sitting on straw in one of our greenhouses, working to get that last little bit of concentration. This last pick was a full month later than the last pick in 2022. If you've been following along with the growing season, that won't be a surprise. But it's still a relief. 

Last Bin of Roussanne

2023 was our coolest year since 2011. That cool weather, combined with a late start thanks to our record rainfall last winter, meant that we came out of dormancy late, hit every marker late, and harvested late. At the beginning of October we were only 10% done, and with El Nino looming in the Pacific, had real worries as to whether or not we'd get the crop in before it started to rain. But we got lucky. The weather warmed up in October, the rain (and frosts) held off, and we were able to pick everything. Check out the degree days trend for the year. 2023 is the bold, red dotted line. The key inflection point is at the beginning of October, at which it bends back up and since we've seen more-or-less average heat accumulation:

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through November 9th

Another way of looking at the cool year is going month by month compared to normal. We've had two months that were slightly warmer than average (July and October), three that were slightly cooler than normal (April, May, and August), and two that were significantly chillier than normal (June and September):

Degree Days by Month 2023 vs Average

As you would suspect, the cool September didn't exactly cause fruit to come tumbling in. But once it warmed up in October, things shifted into high gear. That month included our busiest-ever week of over 140 tons between October 8th and 14th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin or Lignée programs, and orange estate-grown fruit. While the timing of the arrival of our purchased grapes is more variable, the estate fruit forms an almost perfect bell curve:

2023 Harvest tons by week

Yields were up 39.9% overall off the estate vs. 2022, which sounds amazing, but it's more a reflection of how low 2022 was than that 2023 was some crazy windfall. We also have some new acreage in production, which means that even with all those new grapes we averaged 3.04 tons/acre. A list of our other vintages that saw crop levels right around 3 tons per acre reads like a "greatest hits" collection and includes 2003, 2007, 2014, 2016, and 2019. But it's worth noting that there's a lot of variation in how different grapes did this year. The grapes that were up sharply were either the whites that were impacted by last year's frosts (Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Picpoul, and Roussanne) plus Grenache Noir, which saw the most significant increase in producing acreage. Other grapes were flat or even (in the cases of Viognier and Cinsaut) down a bit:

Grape 2023 Yields (tons) 2022 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2022
Viognier 10.1 11.9 -15.1%
Marsanne 9.0 8.3 +8.4%
Grenache Blanc 29.3 14.2 +106.3%
Picpoul Blanc 7.2 4.2 +71.4%
Vermentino 13.0 8.7 +49.4%
Bourboulenc 7.2 5.9 +22.0%
Roussanne 26.2 10.5 +149.5%
Other whites 3.2 4.1 -22.0%
Total Whites 105.2 67.8 +55.2%
Grenache 97.1 52.5 +85.0%
Syrah 41.7 39.9 +4.5%
Mourvedre 47.4 42.9 +10.5%
Tannat 15.3 13.5 +13.3%
Counoise 22.4 14.4 +55.6%
Cinsaut 3.6 3.8 -5.3%
Other reds 7.1 8.0 -11.3%
Total Reds 234.6 175.0 +34.1%
Total 339.8 242.8  +39.9%

In trying to pull out trends that aren't just reflections of 2022's weirdness, it seems to me that early grapes (like Viognier, Marsanne, Cinsaut, and Syrah) were pretty much flat compared to last year's low levels, so below-average historically. Vermentino and Grenache Blanc look like exceptions to that rule, but they were frozen last year and even their healthier yields this year are a little below our long-term norms. The grapes that flowered and ripened in the middle of the cycle (think Grenache Noir, Tannat, and Bourboulenc) all saw above-average yields and in many cases were up notably from last year. And the late-sprouting grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne were somewhere in the middle, up from last year but still around our long-term averages.

Ideally, the outstanding vine health this year pays us off in two ways. First, all that leaf area combined with relatively modest yields should translate into great intensity in the wines. That's consistent with what we're seeing with the deep colors and dramatic flavors in the wines we're tasting so far. But the second payoff is that the cane growth and this year's lack of frosts should put the vines in position to produce well next year too. The buds that will produce next year's growth, after all, are already formed. They're just waiting for the arrival of spring to show themselves.

We had 129 harvest lots, an increase of 14 vs. 2022. These included 12 more estate lots (94 instead of 82), two more Lignée lots (4 instead of 2) and the same number of Patelin lots (31). The combination of the increased fruit off the estate and some larger Patelin lots meant that we processed 35% more fruit this year than we did in 2022. No wonder the cellar team was ready to celebrate! In the photo below of our harvest chalkboard, estate lots are in white, while purchased lots are green. Each line represents one pick. And yes, we have five more lots that we're going to have to figure out how to fit into those last three lines:

Harvest chalkboard nearly done

One way that you can get a quick assessment of a vintage 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
2022 22.14 3.70
2023 22.77 3.51

It's been a long time since we saw sugar and (especially) pH numbers like this. In fact, you need to go back to 2010 to find a comparable year. How big a difference does 0.19 pH points make? A lot more than you might think. pH is measured in a logarithmic scale, so a pH of 3 has ten times the concentration of acid ions as a pH of 4. So the average pH of 3.51 is 55% more acidic than the average pH of 3.70 we saw last year. That's why Chelsea described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry" in an Instagram Live we recorded mid-harvest. We can thank this year's cooler weather and lack of heat spikes for the vibrant acids, but I also think it points to the health of the vineyard thanks to the ample rain last winter and the years of regenerative farming that have allowed it to hold that water in a zone where the vines' roots can find it. 

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. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. And now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season: 

Joanna digging out Mourvedre

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage, and she was enthusiastic: "the long ripening really helped us out with the depth and intensity. Even this early the aromas are so nuanced, layered, and complex. If this is a sign of things to come I think we've got a really exciting vintage ahead of us." We're all looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2023 even better in coming weeks.

Mourvedre in the press

With rain in the forecast for later this week, we've been pushing to get the vineyard prepped for winter. We've been spreading compost, seeding cover crop, and laying straw on our vineyard roads:

Straw on the farm road

Just as this year has gone since the beginning, it looks like we'll get it done just in time. We've been telling ourselves, for what feels like months, that we'll have a rest when we get to Thanksgiving. It looks like that's about right. And there will be plenty to give thanks for.

Jordy on quad


Knowing rain is on the way makes our brief, lovely autumn all the more special

It's always a shock when daylight savings ends, and I realize it's already dark as I wrap up my work day. But there are rewards of having the sun set while I'm still at work, not least that I can look out my office window, realize that the light is breathtaking, and grab my phone and head out to the vineyard. I did that yesterday and got some shots that I loved. First, a photo of Sadie (who turns 9 today) prowling through my beauty shot. The aura of light makes it look like I photoshopped her into the picture, but I didn't.

Sadie in the sunset

The low sun angles brings out the autumn colors in the vines. A different view of the vineyard block above, looking south over the Syrah and Roussanne instead of west, shows the warm yellows and oranges that join the green in this season.

Autumn Syrah and Roussanne

I got another view that highlights the fall colors looking downhill through our oldest Counoise block (also the oldest Counoise block in California):

Autumn Counoise

I sometimes feel like I've taken every picture there is to take here, but I got a perspective I've never noticed before, with the sun at my back silhouetting one of our big valley oak trees against the warm colors of an old Grenache block. I'm not sure there is a more "Paso Robles in autumn" shot than this one:

Oak silhouette on Grenache

I got up on top of the ridge you see in the above photo and was able to get a photo of the sun setting where there was also enough light to illuminate the Grenache vines in the foreground:

Sunset over Syrah and Grenache

We've started shifting our focus from bringing in our grapes (there's only a little Roussanne left out) to prepping our land for the coming rainy season. This tractor probably isn't going to have any more grapes to haul:

Dramatic tractor

We know we've gotten lucky with frosts. Much of Paso Robles has gotten a few already, with some temperatures down in the mid-20s. That's not an issue for grapevines that have already been picked, but if there's still fruit out, a hard frost will kill off the leaves and mean there won't be any more ripening because photosynthesis is over for the year. At that point, the leaves turn brown and crispy, ready to fall off as the vine transitions into its winter dormancy. Those are the conditions that I see every day looking out my window, as we had a few frosts last week in the Templeton Gap. Now that vineyard -- source of our Full Circle Pinot Noir -- looks ready for winter. Soon, the whole vineyard will:

Pinot with brown leaves
This brief-but-beautiful autumn season will end as soon as we get a hard freeze out at Tablas, which could happen as soon as this weekend. And whether it freezes or not, it looks like we're about to make our transition to winter. The first winter storm of the season is forecast to arrive next Tuesday:

That transition is perfectly timed, from our perspective. We should be done picking this week. We'll have a chance to get cover crop seed down where it needs to go before the rain. We should have a chance to do some keyline plowing to help slow down the surface flow of water and encourage deeper penetration. And the quantities are perfect for a first storm: enough to do more than wet the surface, but not enough to worry about erosion before the cover crop has sprouted.

We feel like since October the 2023 season has played out just as we'd have hoped it would. It seems like that's going to continue for at least a little longer.

Autumn sunset vertical


An Internship Unlike Any Other: An Interview with Liberty Wines Apprentice Ceren Eroglu

By Ian Consoli

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’re aware that each year, we host three harvest interns here at Tablas Creek. Getting to know these interns is always a treat, and knowing that, three months later, they leave steeped in Tablas Creek’s practices and with experience in all aspects of harvest is great. It’s one of the ways that we pay it forward. But this year, an additional opportunity dropped into our laps. In February, we received an email from Liberty Wines, our agent in the UK, about their Apprentice Scheme.  Liberty Wines’ Head of Education, Clare Whitehead, summarized the program:

We have now been running the Liberty Wines Apprentice scheme since 2007 and have had one (or two) apprentices every year since! Unique in the industry, our 2-year programme offers candidates a detailed and wide-ranging experience of many departments within the organisation. They are also supported through the WSET Diploma Level 4 and undertake two vintages in the northern and southern hemispheres.

It has given Liberty an excellent way to grow talent and provides opportunities to people who might not have otherwise chosen wine as a career. We are proud to send our apprentices to our producers, as ambassadors of Liberty Wines and look forward to their return a newfound intimate knowledge of not just winemaking, but also the producer!

We were asked by Liberty Wines if we’d be interested in hosting one of their apprentices for their northern hemisphere harvest. Our response: “of course”! Ceren Eroglu joined the harvest team in early October, making her their first Apprentice to do so in California. She proved to be an immediate asset to the team. Winemaker Neil Collins commented on her engaging nature, intellect, and strong work ethic as valuable components to this harvest's success. "We wish she could have stayed longer!"

Alas, Ceren concluded her one-month harvest this week and will continue her internship back in the United Kingdom. But before she left, I sat down with her to find out why she did this apprenticeship, learn about her wine journey, and hear about her time at Tablas Creek. We can't wait for you to meet her.

Ceren Eroglu

Who are you?

My name is Ceren Eroglu. I am an Apprentice at Liberty Wines and have been here for about a month, helping with the harvest at Tablas Creek.

 What is Liberty Wines?

Liberty Wines is one of the UK's leading wine importers and distributors.

 Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? Where did you grow up?

I'm from Turkey but moved around a lot growing up. We lived in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, and Austria before I moved to Canada for college. I live in London now and have been in the UK for the last eight and a half years or so.

 How did you get into wine?

I did my master's in the UK and started working at a financial services research company immediately after. During the lockdowns in 2020, I was going stir-crazy working from home and decided to take a few wine courses. I really enjoyed them, so I spoke to a few friends in the wine industry and decided to switch to wine in October of last year. So it's been exactly a year.

 What wine classes were you taking?

I lived around the corner from the WSET school in London, and I just walked by and thought, "I like wine. This is something I could learn more about." It was just purely by chance. I did levels two and three while working in finance, and now I'm completing my WSET Diploma.

Can you explain what that means regarding working with Liberty, completing the diploma, and what that connection is to Tablas Creek?

Sure. I am in Liberty Wines' two-year Apprenticeship program, working with different teams across the company every month to two months. That gives me exposure to and an understanding of how every single team works, the company, the industry, how we fit within it, and how we can be the best company within it. From my view, the goal of the Apprenticeship is to get a holistic understanding of the wine industry and Liberty wines more generally. Part of that includes two harvests abroad: one in the northern hemisphere, which I'm completing here now, and one in the southern hemisphere, which I will hopefully take part in around February or March next year. It also includes the WSET diploma. I'm about halfway through the second semester of the diploma.

Ceren Eroglu on sorting table

How long do you work the harvests?

It depends. Northern Hemisphere is typically a month, so I'm doing five weeks here at Tablas. Southern Hemisphere is typically about two months just because you're going further away, but I guess I've come a pretty long way anyway.

 Is it common for apprentices to come to the US?

It is typically Europe. It's sometimes based on language requirements, sometimes based on producers. I speak a bit of French, so it was between France and the US. The Brand Manager who covers our producers in the US works with Tablas Creek, and she highly recommended coming here.

 Does it have to be a company that Liberty distributes?

Yes, it's typically a producer we have a really good relationship with who will take the time to teach the apprentice how to make wine and show them around the area.

How's it going?

Really good. I'm having the best time. It's totally different to my day-to-day job. I had to write an email the other day and realized I'd forgotten my laptop password [laughs]. The team is welcoming, and there's a strong sense of community here that I'm really going to miss. This has been a great place for my first harvest because of how understanding and happy to answer questions everyone is.

The harvest team at Tablas Creek 2023

Do you feel like this harvest has helped you understand your WSET courses and diploma?

A hundred percent. Seeing everything has been amazing. I understood the theory behind winemaking, viticulture, vinification, all that stuff, but it was just theory. I had never seen everything in action, and seeing it solidified everything in my mind. It is interesting to see how the team works with different grapes, especially red grapes. Different types of cap management, days of fermentation, how they process the fruit, whether whole cluster or not, which choices they may or may not make, what kind of barrels to use. All of that. Seeing those decisions made in real-time has been super helpful for the rest of my studies.

What are your plans at the conclusion of this internship?

I'll spend a few days in Sonoma and Napa with my partner, then travel along the coast. We'll spend a few more days in Paso so I can show him Tablas before we head back to London. I'll be going straight back to work. I will likely work with Customer Services over Christmas, then prepare for the Southern Hemisphere harvest.

Ceren Eroglu doing a punchdown

What's the best bottle of wine you've ever had?

The best bottle of Tablas Creek was the 2015 Roussanne. I think it's fantastic, so much depth and complexity and so much potential to age further. We tried the 2003 Vermentino with lunch a few weeks ago. That was fantastic too. It's aged beautifully, was quite refreshing, and really vibrant.

Is there anything else you want to share with the Tablas Creek audience?

I think Tablas makes great wines, and I'm so excited to keep enjoying them!


Harvest 2023 update: a deep exhale as warm weather brings the finish line in sight

Three weeks ago we were all pretty nervous. We'd had the coolest September in our history, and not just by a little. High temperatures were more than 7.5°F cooler than average, which on top of the delayed growing season meant that as the calendar flipped to October we'd only finished about 10% of the harvest off the estate. With el nino brewing in the Pacific, we were facing a real risk of serious rain coming while significant quantities of our fruit were still out on the vine. We were hoping that the warmer weather that began with the onset of October would stick around long enough to have a real impact on the ripening of our grapes and the timeline of our harvest. Spoiler alert: it did.

Harvest chalkboard October 24th

Not only have the last three weeks been warmer than normal, they've been nearly as warm as we'd expect September to be. In essence, the months have flipped places. While September's average high was 80.9°F, since October 1st our average high has been 84°F. This has reversed the trend in Growing Degree Days and brought 2023 back up away from the record-cool years of 2010 and 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023 thru 10-23

Even better, that warm weather has come just the way we prefer it. Although we've had eight days in the 90s, the highest high temperature was just 96.4°F. Both of the warm stretches (October 4th-8th and October 18th-20th) were followed by at least three days that topped out in the 70s. That meant that the grapevines could continue to build sugars without losing their acids and without being under an unhealthy amount of stress. And as often happens when a delayed harvest finally gets some heat, the fruit came rolling in. Most days we've had a lineup of bins in our parking lot, waiting to be processed, as we're running presses of newly-harvested whites and newly-fermented reds. The dance of the forklifts is something to behold.

Bins of grapes everywhere

These harvest days start before sunup and finish after dark, with what seems like endless rounds of washing in between. After all, every tank we have will get used five or six times this year. Every press gets used three or four times each day. And all the equipment gets cleaned up and put away every night. I love this photo I got of Gustavo cleaning the red press today as the sun was setting:

Gustavo washing the press

The fruit that we've been getting, and the young wines that we've been tasting, look tremendous. We're seeing some of the deepest colors we can remember. The grapes have lovely freshness and lift. I spoke to Chelsea last week for an Instagram Live harvest update, and she described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry". Now maybe you have to work in a winery cellar to dream about chemistry at this time of year, but it gives you a sense of the lovely balance of sugars and acids that we're seeing.

We don't have to look far to know that the clock is ticking. The fall foliage colors on the vines, like this Counoise block below, are telling us that the end is near: 

Fall colors in Counoise

Still, the grapes that are still out on the vines are there because they need this time. The two clusters below (Counoise, left, and Roussanne, right) are looking and tasting great, but they're sitting only at about 20° Brix and will benefit from another week or two out in the sun:

Counoise cluster cropped Roussanne cluster

The mornings are usually starting with a little low-lying fog:

Fog lifting between Counoise rows

Walking around the vineyard, there are more blocks where the grapes have already been picked than there are with crop still hanging. That gives us the chance to give some of the younger vines (like this three-year-old Syrah) a little post-harvest drink:

Post-harvest irrigation

We're also giving a little sigh of relief because it looks like yields are significantly recovered from last year. It's most dramatic in the varieties that were frozen last year; we've harvested double the quantity of Grenache Blanc that we did last year and Vermentino is up 49%. But even grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, none of which were impacted by last year's frosts, are seeing crops something like 10% higher than last year. We've already picked 30 more tons of Grenache than we did in 2022, with a couple of blocks still to come. And it seems clear that Roussanne will come in with higher quantity than last year, when it finally gets ripe. Now our biggest unknown is Mourvedre, and when I saw Neil today he sounded more relaxed than he has in weeks. We're no longer worried about whether the fruit will be good, or whether it will get ripe. Now we're just worrying about where we're going to put it. And that's a huge relief.


Harvest Update: After a Record-Cool September, Things Heat Up (Thankfully)

This week, we got our first Grenache off of Jewel Ridge, from an early morning pick. The fruit was lovely, as was the view west over the lines of hills:

IMG_5825

Even a few days ago, a view like this would have been hard to come by. We've had consistently chilly, often foggy nights, and a string of days where temperatures have been well below average. For the month, 25 days were below average, with only two above our norms and three others almost exactly average:

High Temperatures September 2023 vs Average

And it's not like it was only a little cooler than normal. The daily highs in September were a full 7.5°F cooler than average, meaning that this September has seen temperatures about what an average October would bring. A good way of measuring heat accumulation is Growing Degree Days (GDDs). The average year 2010-2022 saw September accumulate 558 degree days, with a high of 655 in 2020 and a low of 505 in 2013. September of 2023 looks like it's a data error: just 393 GDDs. This has meant that our overall heat accumulation (the dotted red line) is trending away from average, back down toward the very cool years of 2010 or 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023

All this explains why, two days before we finished harvest last year, we're only about one-third of the way done, and still working on early-ripening grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino:

IMG_5821

Still, at around 200 tons picked (roughly one-third of our projected total) there's still lots of activity in the cellar. All that Syrah is getting processed, with the portion that's being fermented whole-cluster needing to be foot-treaded twice daily:

Cellar 3

Samples are being pulled in all our blocks that look like they might be getting close, with sugars and acids measured and flavors and colors evaluated:

Cotes Maduena - Sample

Once Neil and the team in the cellar have decided that something is ready to pick (in this case, the first Grenache from Jewel Ridge) we cue up our crew and get them out early in the morning so that the pick is comfortable and the fruit is cool when it goes into the bins:

Jewel - Bins

Its next stage brings it to the sorting table, where any leaves or other unwanted material is removed before the grapes are de-stemmed and sent to a tank to ferment:

Sorting Table

So even though we haven't reached harvest's peak, there's still plenty going on. But we're still grateful for the warmer weather we got this week. If we continue on at the pace we've seen so far, we will surely be picking into mid-November, and with el niño building out in the Pacific, that gets risky. Plus, with the moisture in the ground and the lack of hot weather, we're seeing little pockets of botrytis, a form of rot typically rare in California. While some regions (most notably Sauternes) have harnessed botrytis to make sweet wines, we would definitely prefer to get our fruit in unaffected. And the last few days have delivered. It hit 90 yesterday for the first time since September 10th, surpassed that today, and is supposed to stay warm over the weekend. Typically, if it's been cool late in the growing season, even a short warm-up has a big impact on grapes that are nearly ready. We're expecting a wave of Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, and even Muscardin off our estate next week, as well as more Patelin components for red, white, and rosé.

If you'd like the detailed version, I decided to change things up with my semi-weekly Instagram Live broadcast and instead of bringing in a guest from outside, to sit down with Neil and have him share what he's seeing. That half-hour conversation is on our Instagram feed or embedded below:

One thing that I thought was memorable in my conversation with Neil was his comment that a cool harvest and long hang time is great... until it isn't, because you get rain. Everything that we've gotten in so far looks outstanding. We should hit harvest's midpoint next week. The forecast going forward looks great. Still, that only takes us about 10 days. Harvest will likely last another five weeks. We're optimistic, but still, it's been a while since we had a year that pushed us into November and even longer since it did so in conjunction with an el niño. If you see any winemakers out there looking nervously over their shoulders, that's why. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


A Picture Worth 1,000 Words, 2023 Harvest Edition

This morning I was standing on the crushpad talking to Chelsea. I asked her whether the fermentations had started on the grapes we picked last week. She said that they were just getting going, and mentioned that the plan was to bring the barrels outside so that they could benefit from some of the heat when it warms up. Then she looked at the sky, still densely overcast, and corrected herself: "If it warms up."

The overcast did start to break up at lunchtime, though as of 1:30pm it was still as much clouds as sun in the sky and our temperatures were still only in the low-70s. I got a photo I love, looking up from underneath the canopy of our Bourboulenc block toward that still-mostly-cloudy sky:

Overcast September - Under Bourboulenc

In a normal harvest, an overcast day like this would be a rare treat and a chance to catch up after several days of sustained heat. But not in 2023. We haven't had a single 100°F day in the last month, a period in which our average high has been 85.8°F, more than 5°F lower than the long-term average of 91.1°F. We haven't even had a day hit 90°F in the last two weeks. Most of those days have started with several hours of overcast. The full picture since veraison:

Average High Temperatures 2023 vs normal through Sep 17

The next week looks similar, with forecast highs in the upper 70s and lower 80s. And there's no big warm-up coming; today's ag forecast suggests that we're looking at below-average to average temperatures through the end of September.

How big a deal is this? Maybe it's actually a good thing. I know I'd definitely prefer this to hundred-degree temperatures. It's not like it's in the 50s°F and 60s°F every day. The grapevines are photosynthesizing. Sugars are rising, and acids are falling. Even better, acids are falling slowly, which is giving us something like dream chemistry in the samples we're taking. The vines are thriving in this moderate climate, and looking back at previous years (like September 2014, for example) drives home just how much greener the foliage is now than we're used to seeing in September, which bodes well for their ability to withstand this marathon.

What this weather is doing is shifting our risks from the beginning of harvest to the end. At some point, these low pressure troughs that are bringing this overcast weather will start to come with real moisture and rain. If we're still in the middle of picking -- particularly if we're still picking thin-skinned grapes like Grenache -- that could be a problem. If it's chilly during the harvest season, that will likely mean that our fermentations, which are all done with native yeasts, will likely take longer to complete. But that's a problem for future Tablas Creek. For now, we'll take it. And if you're visiting in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.


Harvest 2023 begins. What a difference a year makes!

On Tuesday, we brought in our first two lots, both for Patelin: a little less than seven tons of Viognier from a vineyard called New Creations and a little more than six tons of Syrah from Tofino. Both looked great. Yesterday, we brought in the Pinot Noir from the vineyard my dad planted. Today we got the first picks off the estate, seven bins of Vermentino and two bins of (surprise) Roussanne, as well as another Patelin de Tablas lot of Roussanne from Nevarez. And we're off:

Harvest Chalkboard - First 3 days
All this is a far cry from last year, when sustained heat pushed us to one of our earliest-ever harvests. We started bringing fruit in off the estate on August 17th, and by the 14th of September we were nearly three-quarters done:

Finished Harvest Chalkboard

I'll share some thoughts at the end of the blog as to what this all means, but first I want to set the scene for you and share some of the images of these early days of harvest. I'll start with the first bins of Viognier, from Austin Collins' viewpoint on the forklift:

First Patelin Viognier from Forklift

Neil got a photo of the first bin of Syrah, waiting in front of the sorting table for de-stemming. He pointed out that it just happened to be in bin #1:

First bin of Syrah in Bin #1

The pick of Pinot Noir from our place is always a milestone, and the cellar team traditionally joins the vineyard crew for it. Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg got some great photos. First, the scene as dawn broke:

Picking Pinot at Dawn - JL

Next, a view of the bins on the back of the trailer. That's Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things... the beginning of his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek!

Bins of Pinot with David

The fruit looked great. Those are Jordy's boots:

Looking down on Pinot bins - JL

And finally the whole crew, all smiles at the end of the pick:

Harvest crew at Haas Vineyard Cropped

After those two mellow starting days, today is starting to feel like harvest is getting into full swing. We're pressing Vermentino and Roussanne, which made a surprise early appearance here thanks to the higher elevation and healthy young vines on Jewel Ridge. We've had perfect conditions, with chilly nights and warm but not hot days. The last wisps of fog were still lifting as Neil snapped this shot at the end of the Roussanne harvest:

Harvesting Roussanne on Jewel Ridge

The Roussanne was textbook; note the classic russet color of the berries, one of the signifiers that they've reached ripeness:

Roussanne looking russet

We're also doing a wide sampling across all the relatively early-ripening varieties, including this Syrah. The color is amazingly dark given that this is just a sample and it hasn't been left to macerate:

Sampling

If you're wondering why we're so much later than last year (OK, the last several years) you need look no further than the cumulative growing degree days, a common measurement of heat accumulation during the growing season. Although July was warm enough that we jumped ahead of the 2010-2011 vintages that we'd been tracking, it cooled back off in August and we're still significantly cooler than any year since 2011. What's more, we're a whopping 23% cooler as measured in growing degree days (dotted red line) than we were last year (dotted pale blue line):

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through September 13th

It's too early to say much about yields. The Pinot Noir harvest came in roughly where last year's did, but conditions in the Templeton Gap are different than they are out at the winery, and it didn't suffer any frost damage last year. Neil is thinking that we'll likely see healthy crops, up measurably from last year and maybe even a bit above our long-term averages. Jordy is thinking a little more conservatively, predicting that the combination of plentiful but small clusters, small berries, and some loss due to shatter and millerandage is likely to combine to produce yields above last year but still below our long-term averages. We'll know more in a few weeks, once we've completed the estate harvest of a few more grapes. 

One thing that is clear is that we're looking at a harvest that seems more like a marathon than last year's sprint. There isn't any major heat in the forecast, with most of next week supposed to top out in the 70s and low 80s. That's ideal for quality, and likely to give us the flexibility to bring things in gradually and in multiple passes. But it does mean that we will almost certainly still be harvesting in November. That wouldn't have been unusual in the 2000s, but it's been a while since it's happened. With el nino building in the Pacific, our current worry is whether we'll be done before we get our first winter rains. That's likely a ways off, but anyone who has a line to the weather gods, please put in a good word.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights, aromas, and energy of harvest. Stay tuned for updates.


While We Wait for First Fruit: An Interview with our 2023 Harvest Interns

By Ian Consoli

Every year, we like to sit with our newest harvest interns and introduce them to the Tablas Creek Blog audience. We typically do this about this time of year, when they have at least a week of harvesting fruit under their belt and an idea of how harvest is going. Well, as you have likely read on this blog, that's not the case this year! One week into September, this new batch of interns eagerly awaits the first fruit to drop into the cellar. So, this year, we sat down before the rush. What stood out to me is how different their personalities are, yet they are motivated by the same thing: seeing what's next. It is kind of a theme for harvest interns. It is a step towards a career in winemaking for some and a chance to see the process and get closer to the grape for others. This group has a mix of both motivations. They are all awesome, and I can't wait for you to meet them.

Tablas Creek 2023 Harvest Interns - Web

Tablas Creek Harvest Interns. From left: Joanna Mohr, Sarah Schultz, Trevor Pollock

 Who are you?

I am Sarah Schultz. I am a cellar intern at Tablas Creek.

I'm Trevor Pollock. I'm from Paso Robles, California. I'm 23 years old and doing an internship for this harvest.

I'm Joanna Mohr. That's a loaded, vast question I ask myself every day. But yeah, Joanna, and I'm from Minnesota, born and raised.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Bakersfield, California, and went to college at Cal Poly. I have lived in SLO for five years.

Sarah Schultz - Web2023 Harvest Intern Sarah Schultz

I grew up in Paso, but I've moved around a lot. Most recently, I lived in Colorado for about a year and a half, working at a ski resort and being a ski bum. I moved back about seven months ago.

I'm from Minnesota, but I have lived in many places. I worked for a marketing agency that had offices all over the world. I moved with them to Australia for three years and then to London after that. That's how I got into wine, actually.

How did you get into wine?

I went to a wedding at a winery during my sophomore year of high school, and I thought it was the coolest thing that people got to make wine for a living. So that's how I got into it. Now, I want to be a winemaker.

Well, I'm getting into wine right now. I studied plant science over at Cuesta and worked on some farms. I found this opportunity to work at a winery and decided that if I was going to work at a winery, I wanted it to be a place as biodiverse as Tablas.

I went to all the wine regions in Australia and liked it, but I didn't think I would do anything with it. When I moved to London, there were more opportunities to work in wine, and my friend recommended I go to wine school. That sounded great, but I didn't even know what a sommelier was at the time. I went through WSET, and I just loved it. So, I left marketing and became a sommelier.

Have you ever worked in grape harvest before?

I have; this is my fourth harvest. My first was at Phase Two Cellars in San Luis Obispo, then King's Family Vineyard in Virginia, Patson Hall in Sonoma, and now here at Tablas Creek!

Nope, my first one.

I helped pick and prune at a couple wineries in Minnesota, but I haven't done a full harvest. Vineyards in Minnesota are a little different varietally because of the cold climate, but the process is pretty much the same. Except it's a bit more gnarly in terms of the cold; we had a harvest in a snowstorm one year, and it was minus 30, so it was pretty intense in October.

How did you end up working harvest with us?

My goal is to work a harvest in as many locations as possible to figure out where I want to settle. I knew I wanted to come to Paso, then I saw Tablas's job listing, applied, and here I am.

I was in Europe over the summer and heard about his opportunity. I decided to cut my trip short and come back to start harvest.

Trevor Pollock - Web2023 Harvest Intern Trevor Pollock

I got super into biodynamics when I was in Europe, and Tablas always stood out as a winery I was interested in working at in the United States. I applied for the internship two years ago, but it was full by the time I applied. I didn't plan on applying this year, but I saw [Senior Assistant Winemaker] Chelsea's post about looking for interns, and I was like, I'll just shoot a shot. I sent her an email and resume, she remembered me, and here I am.

How is everything going so far?

So far so good. I love all the people. And how can you not be happy when you come to work and you're surrounded by dogs?

It's going great. Getting everything clean and ready for harvest, just prepping stuff.

Everything's good! It's nice to have time to come before the chaos happens and learn the ropes without getting thrown in. Being quite green at it, it's nice to have an idea of what to do. Everyone's super awesome to work with, and it's a really good crew. So far, so good.

What's the best bottle of wine you ever had?

The best bottle of wine I've ever had was Shooting Star Riesling from Lake County Steel Wine. I don't know. It's my favorite wine.

That's a tough one. Recently, I had a really good Viognier with my mom in our backyard. Memorable wines are all about the whole experience of where your surroundings are and who you're sharing it with. I don't remember specifically what the bottle was, but it was a nice Viognier and a nice environment.

Ironically, Chateau de Beaucastel. I was in the South of France and tasted a bottle of Chateau de Beaucastel that shifted something for me. I feel like anyone who has had a best bottle of wine understands how it shifts wine from just being wine to being something else entirely. It is hard to put into words. The wine becomes something that connects you to a place, a time and a memory and something deeper within. And that was before Tablas, so it was cool to find out they were connected. That was kind of like an icing on the cake.

Joanna - Web2023 Harvest Intern Joanna Mohr

What's next for you after your harvest?

Honestly, I don't really know yet. I think that's future Sarah's problem. I don't know. Again, I want to go to as many locations as possible. So somewhere, but I don't really know where yet. I want to do some harvest hopping and go to Australia or New Zealand, but we will see.

I'm not sure. I want to travel a lot more, so I'm thinking about doing a harvest in the Southern Hemisphere. I'd love to go to South America, Australia, or New Zealand.

Not sure. I kind of roll with wherever the wind takes me. I've wanted to do a harvest ever since I first got into wine, just because I want to learn this side of wine. I've been on the sommelier side for so long. I want to learn everything I can here, and I'm super passionate about biodynamics. We will see what happens at the end and where the path goes from here.

Is there anything else you want to share with the Tablas Creek audience?

I think that's it, man. I'm ready for harvest 2023, baby. Let's go!

I'm excited to make wine for you guys this season!

Tablas Creek 2023 Harvest Interns working - Web


Veraison 2023 suggests a mid-September kickoff to harvest... plus photo updates on every Rhone red

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. The onset of veraison comes roughly six weeks before the beginning of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for what sort of schedule we're likely looking at. And it's lovely. Witness this Tannat cluster, roughly halfway through veraison as of this morning:

Veraison 2023 - Tannat

The fact that I'm writing about veraison in late August is remarkable enough, though anyone following the progress of the vineyard this year will know that we're looking at our latest harvest since at least 2011. But at this point, with the weather turned warm and perfect, things are moving fast. I thought I'd take a quick romp through all the different red Rhone varieties to give you a sense of where each stands. At the end, I've included a chart with how this year compares to other recent years and made some predictions about when we're likely to start picking.

We spotted our first color in the vineyard in Syrah on August 7th. Now, a little more than two weeks later, every variety is showing at least the first stages of color change, and the early grapes are mostly red. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors, and go roughly from most-veraison to least. The cluster here is a bit ahead of the average in the vineyard, and I'd estimate that we're probably around 70% through veraison in Syrah overall:

Veraison 2023 - Syrah

Next is probably Muscardin. I'm not sure whether this is unusual or not, since it is our newest arrival and we don't have many years of history. It's not as dark red as Syrah (nor will it be at harvest) but overall it looks like it's about 50% of the way through:

Veraison 2023 - Muscardin

Next, somewhat surprisingly, is Mourvedre. That doesn't mean that we're expecting it to start coming in before mid-October, but it's not unusual that we're seeing fairly advanced color change at this point. It just takes longer than the others between this stage and being ready to pick. These clusters are fairly typical, and I'd estimate it's 30% through overall:

Veraison 2023 - Mourvedre

Grenache is next in line, at roughly 20% veraison overall. It's always a particularly pretty grape to watch change color, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month:

Veraison 2023 - Grenache

Terret Noir is at a similar percent through veraison as Grenache, maybe 20% overall, though it's a little more uniform because we only have one block. This was one of the most advanced clusters. Note the characteristic large berries:

Veraison 2023 - Terret Noir

Vaccarese was still mostly green. We're getting into grapes where it was often a challenge to find clusters with more than a few pink berries, and I'd estimate Vaccarese at 2-3% veraison:

Veraison 2023 - Vaccarese

Cinsaut was similar, which was a surprise to me. It's not a super late ripener, and the literature says it ripens pretty much in synch with Grenache. But the cluster below was one of just a few with any color at all:

Veraison 2023 - Cinsaut

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 2023 - 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 these clusters of Viognier (left) and Grenache Blanc (right) are starting to pick up:

Veraison 2023 - Viognier

Veraison 2023 - Grenache Blanc

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 at Tablas 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 the onset of veraison and the beginning of harvest, it's not totally constant, and will 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 summer and a plentiful crop in 2010 gave us a full seven weeks between veraison and our first harvest, while 2021's consistent heat and low yields gave us just a five week interim. Each vintage since 2010 is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 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 August 17 36
2023 August 7 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (34 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 10th and September 25th. 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 the last few years but not at the levels we saw in a year like 2017, which suggests we'd trend toward the middle of the range above. But it has been a cool summer, and you'd expect it to be cooler in late August and early September than you would in late July and early August. I'm not expecting to have to wait into mid-September this year or to challenge 2011 as our latest start to harvest ever, but time will tell. 

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. 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've already started to get ready by finishing our blending of the 2022s and pulling out and checking on all the tanks and equipment we'll need once harvest begins. It's likely too that we'll see some grapes from Patelin or Lignée vineyards, and from the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir, before anything comes off our estate. Those grapes should start coming in a couple of weeks.

So, now we wait, and enjoy the show. We have an idea of how much time is in our hourglass, and we know it's been turned over.


Shatter, sunburn, and millerandage: the challenge of estimating crops in a year like 2023

Exactly one year ago we started the 2022 harvest with four tons of Viognier off the estate. Not this year. Here we're still in such an early stage of veraison that there's a lot more green than red out there in the vineyard. On a positive note, the more time that the grapes have on the vines, all other things being equal, the more complexity of flavors. The flip side to that is that the same things that caused us to be behind can potentially impact our yields. I'll dive into the three main issues we're seeing in this blog, and share some conclusions, as best we can tell at this point, at the end. 

Shatter

When grapevines flower, you hope for benign weather: warm (but not too hot), dry, and no major wind events. A month like May of 2017 is a great example of what we're hoping for. That month, our average high was 78.4°F (with our hottest day topping out at 94.2°F). Our average low was 45.7°F (with our coldest night bottoming out at 35.8°F). We saw just 0.18" of precipitation for the month, and no major wind events. June warmed up further and stayed dry. Sound like this year? Not exactly. Because of our late budbreak, we didn't see the early stages of flowering until mid-May, and didn't finish until the second half of June. If you look at this year's flowering period (so roughly the last 10 days of May and the first 20 days of June) our average temperature was 74.2°F, more than four degrees colder than last year's flowering period even though it was three weeks later this year. We didn't have any significant rain, and wind was moderate, but eight days topped out at 65°F or below.

When you have cool, windy, or rainy weather during flowering you can get shatter, or the incomplete fertilization of the flowers and a resulting snaggle-toothed look of a cluster with only some of its berries, like this Grenache bunch:

Shatter Aug 2023

Different grapes have different proclivities toward shatter, with Grenache being amongst the most shatter-prone. Shatter is far from universal around the vineyard this year, but it's also more prevalent than I can remember seeing in recent years. 

Sunburn

Unlike shatter, sunburn is pretty much exactly what you think. If it's really hot for an extended stretch, exposed grape clusters can suffer direct damage as cell membranes break down, compromising a berry's skin and allowing the liquid inside to evaporate away. The result is hard, brown, sour raisins, as in this west-facing Grenache cluster: 

Sunburn Aug 2023

The temperatures required to cause this sort of cellular damage in grapes is typically around 125°F. Even in a climate like Paso Robles, we don't ever see ambient temperatures this hot. But fruit that's exposed to the sun can see temperatures 20°F-25°F higher than the ambient air. So, when the temperatures top 100°F, we start to be at risk.

Why would a cool year like 2023 set us up for sunburn damage? Because opening up the clusters to the sun can accelerate ripening and can also significantly reduce your risk of a mildew outbreak by allowing the easier circulation of light and air. That is one reason why many vineyards tie up their canes in early summer, and some even pull leaves away from the fruit zone to further help along this process. These techniques more often come into play in a chilly year, where mildew risks are elevated and where you have reason to worry that you might not get the fruit in before the winter rains start.

Even in this overall-cool year, we've had 13 days top 100°F, including nine in a two-week stretch in late July. We were fortunate that none of those days were hotter than 104°F. When you start to get up closer to 110°F it becomes more and more of an issue. We do what we can to make sure that the clusters are shaded by the canopy. And there isn't much sunburn out there. But there's some.

Millerandage

While we deal with shatter and sunburn to some degree each year, millerandage (also known as hens and chicks) is something we haven't seen much of. Its causes are similar to those of shatter, basically cool or wet weather during fertilization. The result is a mix of full-sized berries and those that are smaller, and often much smaller, like this Syrah cluster: 

Millerendage Aug 2023

Typically, these tiny berries don't have seeds and therefore don't get the same attention that the larger berries do from the plant in ripening. That can mean that when the larger berries are ready to pick, the small ones can still be green, hard, and sour. That always means reduced yields, but often isn't a big deal in quality as those smaller unripe berries stay connected to the clusters during destemming and never make it into our fermentation tanks.

What Does All This Mean?

There is bad news, good news, and news we don't know yet. The bad news is that all three of these issues reduce the quantity of fruit that is available for us to harvest and ferment. I had been hoping for a plentiful vintage (this would have been our first such vintage since 2017) but instead I'm now hoping for something more like average. A silver lining is that after all our rain this past winter, we could afford to see some reduction in crop. In fact, if we hadn't gotten some shatter, we'd likely have to have thinned the fruit pretty aggressively. And if this chilly spring had happened after a dry winter, the starting cluster sizes would have been smaller and we could be looking at fruit levels more like a frost or severe drought vintage like 2011, 2015, or 2022. I don't think that will be the case.

Other than the "it could have been worse" the best news is that none of these three issues are typically negatives in terms of fruit quality and can even be an asset. Quantity will be negatively affected, sure. But in terms of quality we're looking at a very strong year. Berry sizes are small. Clusters are loose and therefore less prone to mildew and rot. Yields per acre should be right in line with our favorite years. We should see outstanding intensity in what we harvest.

There are two things we don't know yet. The first is just how much these three issues are likely to reduce our yields. Typically, we estimate crop by counting clusters and using average cluster sizes. The wide variability between clusters because of shatter and millerendage make estimating more difficult. Plus, different varieties appear to have been impacted to different degrees. The second thing that contributes to uncertainty is that we're still a long way from harvest. If we don't start until mid-September, as I'm guessing, and don't finish until mid-November, that's at least a month and as much as three months for other unknowns to take place. Last year, we had the worst heat wave in our history in early September. There have been years where we've gotten significant rain in October. There could be fires. Heck, next week it looks like we might see some precipitation from a tropical system that is forecast to wander into southern California.

If 2023 is teaching us anything, it's not to count our chicks (and hens) before they're hatched. Stay tuned.