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


A True Product of Tablas Creek Vineyard: An Interview with Cellar Assistant Austin Collins

By Ian Consoli

Austin Collins didn’t just grow up with Tablas Creek, he grew up at Tablas Creek. The son of winemaker Neil Collins, who moved with his family to the property when he started in 1998, Austin was here when the Tablas Creek nursery was in full swing. He was here when Tablas Creek harvested its second vintage from the Beaucastel clones and when we harvested the 14th and final of those clones. He was here when Tablas Creek got our organic certification in 2003, our Biodynamic certification in 2016, and the world's first Regenerative Organic Certification in 2020.

Austin joined the Tablas Creek team full-time in 2019 and now lives in that house on the property with his wife Taylor and newborn son Finnegan, who will be the third generation of Collins to live on this property. Now we can look forward to imagining what he will witness.

I sat down with Austin, a friend from my childhood, and asked about his journey, ambitions, and future.

 Who are you?

My name is Austin Collins. I am technically the cellar assistant, but I am more in the vineyard at this point. I am also the property caretaker here at Tablas Creek.

What are some of your daily activities?

I run irrigation right now. Turning on the water, fixing broken lines, and choosing where the water goes each day. Also, just looking at the vineyard, seeing what needs to be done, and making sure it looks good, and all the equipment and tractors are functioning correctly.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up here! At Tablas Creek, in the house right behind me. That's where I live now with my wife and our eight-month-old son.

For those who don't know, how did you end up growing up here?

My dad has been the winemaker here pretty much since the beginning, since 1998. We lived in France at Beaucastel for nine months to a year, then we moved into this house when I was about four.

Austin by his house

When did you really start to get into wine?

I started getting into it in 2015 when I moved back from school. I did a harvest at our family company, Bristols Cider, where I got into fermentation and realized how fun and unique it is. From there, I started drinking wine with friends, coworkers, and mentors. I did my first harvest internship at Linne Calodo here in Paso Robles with Matt Trevisan, and that's where it all started.

Did you always want to work in wine?

No [laughs]. Absolutely not. I thought it was ridiculous for a very long time, to see people drink, sip, and talk about wine. I thought it was madness until about 2015.

What did you want to do before you got into wine?

I went to school to study wildlife biology. I wanted to work in animal behavior studies. Then I got into plants, botany, andrology, and things like that.

Do you utilize any of those studies here?

Definitely, yeah. Biology and plant studies, absolutely.

Other than Linne Calodo, what winery experience did you have before Tablas Creek?

I spent a lot of time in the cellar here when I was a kid during harvest and kind of all year. After Linne Calodo, I interned in Burgundy, in Meursault at Domaine Matrot. Right after that internship, I worked at Beaucastel, which is obviously Tablas's sister winery in Châteauneuf. A few months after working there, I went to New Zealand and worked at a winery called Ata Rangi in Martinborough. Afterward, I returned, worked at Linne Calodo again for another harvest, and started working here in January 2019.

Growing up here on the property and living here currently, what's something you can share about Tablas Creek, this property, this place that not many people would know?

At our tallest point, you can see all of the coastal range through Big Sur. You can actually see Junipero Serra Peak, the tallest peak in Monterey County.

What is your favorite part about working at Tablas Creek?

Definitely the land. I grew up here, so it's the most special place in my world. I've been all over and always come back here thinking it's a special spot. Even the roads you can take from here. Adelaide Road to Klau Mine to Cypress Mountain towards Cambria is probably the best road in the county.

Austin Collins on a quad

I've heard you talk about Grenache flowering. Could you describe that experience?

That is a very nostalgic experience. I mean, this whole industry is a nostalgic experience between working in the cellar and in the vineyard. The flowering of Grenache vines is an incredibly strong smell. I didn't realize what it was until I got into the industry, particularly working in the vineyard. During flowering, like early June, you can just smell this intense perfume smell and it's strongest off the Grenache vines.

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

That's tough. My favorite wineries are very small, so my being there would change them too much. It would be easier for me to answer if it was regional. My favorite wine region to work in would be Jura or Savoie, which are both Eastern France at the foothills of the Alps, between Burgundy and Switzerland.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

That's a mean question. That's so hard. I was thinking about this last night, and I'll just use the first bottle that came to my head because you can go down a rabbit hole of wine bottles that you've had. It was a 1990 Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile. I drank it in France with Francois Perrin and Cesar Perrin at Francois' house for dinner, and it was just stunning. Absolutely amazing.

Was that when you were working at Beaucastel?

Yeah, that's when I was working there. Francois invited me over for dinner, and I got to look at his wine list in his home cellar. He said, "Choose any bottle you would like." That was wild.

What's next for you?

I don't see myself going anywhere anytime soon. So probably just being here at Tablas. Tomorrow.

Could you tell us a little bit about your family life?

I married Taylor, my wife, in 2019, and we had Finnegan this past November. Being a dad changed my life massively. I have been here a lot. Lots of family time, walking around the vineyard, walking around our garden, walking in the creek bed, down and through the trees and the forest. It's grounded me a lot.

What do you do with your free time?

When I have free time? Yeah, there's not a lot of that these days [laughs]. I help run a music venue at our cider house in Atascadero. That's kind of my other job, but most of my free time is spent there. Also, watching live music and going to shows and music festivals anytime I can. Backpacking is my other passion. Anytime I can go out for a couple nights, I go either alone or with a buddy or two.

Would you rather:

Cake or Pie

Cake.

Breathe under water or fly?

Fly because I think if I was breathing underwater, I'd still be really slow at swimming, and I'd probably get eaten by something.

Drink new world or old world wine?

That's tough. Every day is different, you know. Both.

What about today?

Today? New world.

Be a winemaker or a viticulturist?

Both, because being able to do both is so important that I think you have to do both.

Austin Collins


Why is Glass Recycling in the United States So Dismal?

Glass is a product with a number of inherent advantages. It's made from a readily-available and non-toxic source (sand). It's exceptionally stable and nonreactive, and so provides a terrific vessel for containing products like wine that you might want to store for decades. And it can be melted down and reused without any degradation of its quality, so it's a perfect product for recycling. And yet, in the United States, it's recycled less than a third of the time. This fact is one of the main reasons we've been exploring alternative packaging like the bag-in-box that we debuted for our Patelin de Tablas Rosé earlier this year. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries recycle a much higher percentage of their glass than we do here. I found our depressingly low rate of glass recycling eye-opening enough that I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few months researching why. The conclusions say a lot about what our society and industry values right now. I'm guessing and hoping that this information might be eye-opening for you as well.

Before we start investigating why, a quick review of the facts. According to the EPA, in the United States our glass recycling percentage is 31%, and non-recycled glass represents about 5% of the waste that goes into American landfills each year: 7.6 million tons of glass annually. Our recycling rate is less than half of that in Europe (74% overall) and one-third of the best-performing countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Slovenia (all over 95%). And it's actually worse than those numbers appear, since a significant percentage of the glass that is collected and classified as "recycled" in the United States is in fact crushed up and used for road base rather than melted down and used to make new glass.

The stakes are significant. Recycling glass has positive impacts not just on the waste stream, but on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, making new glass containers from recycled glass saves between 20% and 30% of the energy, roughly 50% of CO2 emissions, and offsets a greater-than 100% requirement for inputs, compared to working from raw materials. What's more, according to a 2017 survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 96% of Americans want and expect that glass be included in their recycling options.

So why, if waste glass is a usable commodity, if consumers expect to recycle it, and if doing so saves on cost compared to working from raw materials, isn't the picture here better? The consensus among experts is that it boils down to three main factors.

  • The most widely adopted recycling system in the United States is problematic for glass. Single-stream recycling, in which glass, plastic, and paper are co-mingled in a single bin for pickup and transport to a materials recovery facility (MRF), is overwhelmingly the most common community-sponsored recycling system in America. It is convenient for households, who can toss all their recyclables in one place, and for solid waste companies, who can pick them up with one truck. However, while plastic and paper are unlikely to be damaged in the collection process, glass is fragile and often shatters in the collection process, becoming difficult to sort and also contaminating the other recyclables. Plus, single-stream recycling systems encourage “wish-cycling” where consumers throw nonrecyclable products like light bulbs, plastic bags, soiled cardboard, and Styrofoam into their bins figuring that it’s better to over-recycle than to throw away something that’s recyclable. Doing so adds cost to the recycler and sometimes leads to it being less expensive to send loads to the landfill than pay the cleaning and sorting costs. By contrast, multi-stream recycling systems, in which glass, paper/cardboard, and plastic are placed in different receptacles and collected separately, bypass the MRF entirely and can usually go straight to a processing facility. The downside of these systems is that they cost more for the municipality and solid waste companies, and there is often not the political will to pass along these costs to taxpayers. But the difference is outcomes is stark: just 40% of the glass that goes into single-stream recycling systems ends up getting recycled, compared to 90% from multi-stream recycling systems.

Trash and Recycling

  • The United States is big. There are roughly 400 MRF facilities around the country. But there are many fewer glass processing facilities, which turn recycled glass containers into cullet, or usable fragments often sorted by color: just 63 nation-wide, in 30 states. There are even fewer glass manufacturing facilities: just 44, in 21 states. Processing facilities are often far away from population centers where glass is collected and MRFs built. Glass is heavy and bulky, which means that the transportation costs from MRF to processing facility can, absent other incentives, raise the price of the cullet that results high enough to outweigh the savings from using recycled glass.
  • Transparency is low, both pre- and post-consumer. First, from the post-consumer end. Most people don’t know what happens to their recyclables once they’ve been collected. Consumer surveys show that residents overwhelmingly want their communities to recycle, and reasonably assume that if they do their part their municipality will take care of the rest. But municipalities have little incentive to report on what happens after the recycling is collected. Do you know where your town’s recyclables are sorted? Or what percentage is sent to the landfill? Do you know whether the process makes or loses money for the community? I didn’t. And communities, which have largely chosen a recycling system that gives consumers a false sense of effectiveness, don’t have the incentives to make this information easy to find. Second, from the pre-consumer end. Have you ever seen a wine label display the recycled content of their glass? I don’t think I have. That’s an indication that wineries don’t think that their customers care about this information, or at least don’t care enough to displace other content in what is valuable and scarce label real estate. And bottle suppliers don’t seem to think that wineries care about this information. We pushed our glass supplier TricorBraun to get us bottles with the highest-possible percentage of recycled glass. Our antique green bottles are made with between 60% and 70% recycled material, and our flint (clear) bottles made with 35-50% recycled material. That’s the most that’s available for domestically-produced wine bottles. But that information isn’t easy to find. If you look at TricorBraun's selection of Burgundy-shaped bottles, each listing includes information about their weight, base diameter, color, neck size, height, punt height, mold number, capacity, finish, and style. But there’s no information on the bottle’s recycled content. That’s surely an indication that bottle suppliers either don’t see this as a point of differentiation or don’t have recycled content widely enough available for the resulting information to be worth sharing. And wine isn’t unique. Glass containers, whether for beverages, food, or household products, don’t typically disclose the amount of recycled content. All this makes it difficult for a consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. 

So what’s the way forward here, for consumers and wineries? I see a few possible avenues that could help.

  • Wineries: ask your bottle brokers and manufacturers about the recycled content of the bottles you buy, and demand bottles with as high a recycled content as possible. It’s clear to me that bottle producers and brokers are not sufficiently focused on increasing the recycled content of their products. If that’s the case, it’s because it isn’t being asked of them by their customers. Wineries of all sizes, but particularly larger ones, have significant market power. We’re not a large winery, but we will still buy something like 350,000 bottles this year. The larger the winery, the more power you have to move the needle. And for wineries who are a part of organizations like International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) and committed to achieving meaningful carbon footprint reductions by 2030, increasing the recycled content of your glass bottles should be a piece of the solution you’re pursuing, along with reducing the weight of those bottles and exploring alternate packaging. Because the glass bottle accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery, it also offers the most important target for improvement. 
  • Sustainability certifiers: Add a recycled glass component to your winery metrics if you haven’t already. Most California wineries are a part of a sustainability program. But at least our local program (SIP Certified) doesn’t appear to have any mention of using recycled glass in your bottles in its protocols. I have my issues with sustainability programs, which I’ve shared at length here and elsewhere, but they remain a powerful tool in incentivizing the high percentage of wineries who participate in them to make incremental positive changes. (And wineries, if you’re a part of a sustainability program that doesn’t include anything about this, ask them why.)
  • Consumers: Ask the wineries that you patronize about the recycled content of their bottles. If you have a direct relationship with any wineries, reach out to them directly. Wineries are unusual consumer products in that most do have direct relationships with many of their customers. But if you don’t, ask your local retailer. If they don’t know, they can ask the distributor. The more people along the supply chain who are inquiring about this information, the more pressure there will be on bottle suppliers to use more recycled content, the more market there will be for recycled glass, which will make it more attractive for communities to recycle their waste glass rather than sending it to the landfill.
  • Everyone: Push your communities to be more transparent about the outcomes of their recycling programs. This is particularly important if you’re a part of a single-stream recycling system. If the recyclables are being sorted and used at a high rate, that’s great. But it’s likely not. If not, push for multi-stream recycling, or at least better education on why materials aren’t being used. Is it because of contamination? If so, encourage your community to share information about the costs of “wish-cycling”. Is it a cost decision? Find out what it would take to implement a multi-stream recycling program. There are real challenges here, particularly with the market for recycled commodities still developing. But the status quo, where local governments are quietly misleading their citizens about the efficiency of their recycling programs, isn’t viable.

We know that we can do better, because European countries have shown the way, typically with a combination of multi-stream recycling (to produce good supply) and industry mandates for recycled content (to ensure that there is demand). Neither of those are impossible here; they're just a question of focus and political will. Yes, distances are shorter in Europe; the more densely populated continent means that the shipping costs between consumer collection and glass processing are less. But that’s an incremental difference. If there were more demand from consumers and beverage producers, there would be more recycled glass products available. And that would create a positive feedback loop that would encourage better recycling decisions at the community level.

Glass RecyclingPhoto modified from the original on Wikimedia Commons by user Ecovidrio

We can do the same, or something similar, here. Let’s get to work.


Tasting the wines in the 2022 VINsider "Collector's Edition" shipment

Each summer, I taste through library vintages of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolve. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2014 Esprit de Tablas and the 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Although both vintages were during our 2012-2016 five-year drought, the growing seasons proceeded quite differently.

2014 was in the middle of the drought, but that manifested itself mostly in a growing season that shifted early; both budbreak and harvest were among our earliest on record. The vineyard held up well, with crops just slightly below our long-term averages at 2.78 tons/acre and producing wines with a classic Californian style. These wines had lushness at the forefront but plenty of structure and minerality to back that up. [You can read my recap of the 2014 vintage here.]

2016 actually showed some recovery after the punishingly dry 2015 vintage, and the ~20 inches of rain we got was, while still below our long-term average, the most we'd seen since 2011. The growing season saw a very warm beginning, then an extended cool-down in August and the first half of September, and then when it got warm again, it didn't break until after we'd finished harvesting on October 8th, our earliest concluding harvest ever. The result was that the early-ripening grapes came in with good brightness and focus, while later-ripening grapes showed deep, dense flavors. Overall yields were right at our long-term average, at 2.97 tons/acre. [My recap of the 2016 vintage can be found here.]

In the end, despite their different conditions, the two vintages had more similarities than differences in how they manifested their flavors. Both showed good lush profiles, with backbone and acids to provide balance. Within those broad similarities, 2014 produced wines with a little more open, juicy personality, while 2016 showed a bit more density and tension. Both 2014 Esprit and 2016 Esprit Blanc showed beautifully when I tasted them today, with the first signs of maturity but plenty left in the tank for people who'd like to age them further. The pair:

2022 Collectors Edition Wines

My tasting notes:

  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc: Still a youthful pale gold color. Rich and powerful on the nose, immediately Roussanne in character, with an oyster shell minerality under the vanilla custard, beeswax, and tarragon notes. The palate is both rich and vibrant, with crème brulée and poached pear flavors, a lovely spine of preserved lemon acidity, and a long, broad finish of citrus zest, mandarin, and wet rocks. This vintage tied for our most Roussanne ever in the Esprit Blanc, and it was in full evidence today: 75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, and 7% Picpoul Blanc. Lovely now, but should age in classic fashion if you'd prefer to lean into the butterscotch and roasted nuts character of aged Roussanne.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas: A complex nose of fruitcake, chaparral, teriyaki, and warm baking spices. On the palate, evenly balanced between redder and darker notes, with baker's chocolate, ripe plum, minty herbs, and sarsaparilla flavors. The finish lingers with moderate tannic grip, playing off flavors of black licorice, cherry skin, baking spices and a little minty juniper lift. This is just starting to show secondary flavors, and those who want more of the meaty truffly character of aged Mourvedre should feel comfortable holding this for another decade at least. 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise.

So how have the wines changed? The flavors in the Esprit Blanc have shifted slightly in tone, deepening from new honey to something more like vanilla custard, while retaining the minerality and acid balance of the vintage. The flavors in the Esprit have shifted from more red-fruited to something poised between red and black, and the texture has smoothed out. Both are still youthful enough that anyone who loved them when they were young will feel like they're visiting an old friend, but yet a friend who has gone on to do interesting things with their life. And, of course, they've got plenty of evolving still to do; if collectors prefer a fully mature profile they should feel safe letting them sit another decade. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is awfully exciting, at least to me, between the combination of the library vintages and the variety of new wines. We've been thrilled with how the 2020s have been showing, and I'm convinced the 2021 whites will go down among the best we've ever made:

  • 2 bottles of 2014 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2020 Esprit de Tablas
  • 2 bottles of 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2020 En Gobelet
  • 1 bottle of 2020 Grenache
  • 1 bottle of 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2021 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should be receiving an email soon with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online or by giving our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

Those of you who are members, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  And thank you, as always, for your patronage. We are grateful, and don't take it for granted.


Congratulations to Ian Consoli, Paso Robles Wine Country's "Master Marketer" of 2022!

Yesterday afternoon, several of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's mid-year meeting. We got updates on the work of the PRWCA and a presentation from Assistant City Manager of Paso Robles Chris Huot, who highlighted the results of the wine community's partnership with our city and shared the city of Paso Robles' five-year plan. The PRWCA also gave out three awards, for "Unsung Hero", "Good Neighbor", and "Master Marketer". We are excited that our own Director of Marketing Ian Consoli was voted by his peers the recipient of this last award! You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Ian Consoli award winner

When we hired Ian (as Marketing Coordinator at the time, back in 2019) one of the ways we introduced him to people is by having our last Marketing Coordinator interview him. If you haven't read that piece on the blog, it's a great introduction to who he is. But he's come a long way since then, and really taken the reins of our marketing at a period when it was more important than ever before, thanks to the pandemic-induced closing of our tasting room and curtailing of the festivals, seminars, and tastings where we used to tell our story to new customers and reconnect with existing ones. In recognition of his growth I promoted him to Director of Marketing early last year. He's the first person to hold that title here since I had it in the early 2000s. I caught up with Ian to ask him a few questions about how he got here and what the award meant to him. If you see him in the next few weeks, give him a high five!

Congratulations, Ian! Can you bring people up to speed on who you are and how you got here?
Thank you! Sure. I am a local boy, a graduate of Templeton High School in 2007. I have a short list of local accomplishments, including homecoming king, supporting roles in various school plays, and a CIF championship with the Templeton tennis team in 2005. Now I get to add one more accomplishment to that list! I picked up a marketing degree from Cal State Fullerton and did sales in various industries. I developed my marketing skills when I became the Marketing Director for a small social enterprise in Los Angeles, CA. I had given all I could to that company, was feeling burned out, and decided to move home while I planned my next step. I ended up pouring one day a week in the tasting room at Tablas Creek. The tasting room manager, John Morris, saw my potential, gave me a full-time position, and convinced me to stick around because he thought the marketing role would open up. He ended up being right. Working as the Marketing Director at Tablas Creek is the most fulfilling role I have ever held.

Please talk a little about what this award means to you.
It's a pretty big deal. In my acceptance speech of the award, I said it was the greatest honor of my life thus far, and I meant it. I have dedicated my whole professional life to sales and marketing, and it is a true honor to be recognized by my peers. I consider myself very fortunate to have chosen marketing as my focus in college and have intentionally moved towards this position ever since. I remember sitting in the audience when last year's winner accepted the award and thinking, I'm going to win that next year. I set my intention, worked towards it, and it worked out!

As you look back on the different marketing initiatives that you've spearheaded for Tablas Creek, can you pick three that stand out as meaningful to you, and explain why?
The most fun I ever had was producing the Chelsea and the Shepherd series. It felt original and right for the time. I wrote a whole blog on that creative process.

Sitting side-by-side with Neil Collins for the Tasting with Neil series on Facebook and YouTube Live was also awesome. I got to be a fly on the wall these conversations between legendary winemakers while tasting all of the wines. It was epic, and I look forward to returning to that series.

Getting the word out about ROC stands out as well. We had to come together as a team and send the message on multiple channels from PR, social media, email, print, hosting groups, and participating in seminars. It was an all-hands-on-deck initiative, and it was cool to see everyone come together.

Do you feel like your approach to marketing has changed because of the pandemic?
I think so. When the pandemic hit, I realized we were losing our most vital outlet for interacting with customers, our tasting room. We had to fill that gap through our marketing efforts. Thanks to our loyal customers, we successfully did so. It left me wondering why we hadn't put that much work into staying in contact with people the whole time. I bring the same intensity (as if the tasting room were closed) to my marketing efforts daily.

Can you give a shout out to a couple of other wineries whose marketing you admire?
You can't bring up wine marketing without talking about Wine Folly. They are incredible, and I'm happy the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is partnering with them to educate customers on our region further.

Tank Winery always feels cool to me. They know who they are, brand well, and their GM, Ed Feuchuk, does a good job of making sure he's on panels and participating in the wine community.

Fetzer and Bonterra as well. Their branding and messaging are clean, and so is their wine. It's exciting to see Fetzer come onboard for ROC as well.

So what's the next challenge you're looking forward to tackling?
Social media is changing. Pictures are on the way out, if not already out. Scroll through Instagram and all you'll see is videos. I'm looking forward to digging in on video creation and editing in a big way over the next few months. I just hired a marketing intern, a recent graduate of Cal Poly SLO. Our conversations surrounding trends and content creation make me excited about our feed's future. I'm also excited to complete my MBA in Wine Business from Sonoma State in August. I look forward to continuing to apply everything I learned to my position at Tablas Creek.


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


The ROC Logo - Coming Soon to a Label (and Shelf) Near You

This week, we bottled seven varietal whites from the 2021 vintage. These included some of our stalwart varietal bottlings (Viognier, Picpoul, and Grenache Blanc), some rare grapes where our varietal bottling is one of the only ones in the world (Bourboulenc, Picardan, and Clairette Blanche), and one blend, our Cotes de Tablas Blanc. We'll be releasing them one or two at a time over the next few months, so if you're on our mailing list, be sure to keep an eye on your emails. The septet:

2021 Whites - Front View

I am super excited to have these wines in bottle, both because it was clear to me in this year's bending trials that 2021 has a chance to be a truly memorable vintage, and because we've been so short on white wines that many people's favorites are sold out on our website and we had to suspend our white wine tasting flight for a while until last month's bottling of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc gave us the bare minimum. So the wines will be incredibly welcome, especially as some of our early-in-the-year white wine releases like Vermentino and Roussanne start to get scarce.

But that's not the reason I'm writing a blog about them. I'm doing that because they're the first wines we've bottled to carry the twin logos of CCOF Organic Certified and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™):

2021 Whites - Back View

We've written a lot here, directly and indirectly, about why we're so excited about the Regenerative Organic Certified program. If you haven't yet read Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg's piece Introducing Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): Farming Like the World Depends on It go do that now. But it boils down to the fact that we think that the ROC program provides a framework for how agriculture can be a part of the solution to big-picture societal problems like resource scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality. It's a game changer, with a broader focus than organic (though with the same government-enforced rigor), less tied up in mysticism than Biodynamics (though many of the soil health protocols of ROC come from Biodynamics), and much more rigorous than sustainability certifications (which typically permit at least the limited use of chemicals like RoundUp).

ROC's combination of rigor and breadth is why we think that for the first time it's worth jumping through the hoops to put a seal on our labels. Although we've been farming organically since our inception, and been certified since 2003, we never before put an organic seal on our bottles, mostly because in order to use the NOP seal you can't add any sulfur in winemaking, which makes fermentations prone to volatility and reduces the wine's ability to age. Yes, there's an exception where you can say "made with organic grapes" but that's never felt particularly satisfying; if you want the deep dive, I talk about why in some detail on the blog here and here. And although we've been farming Biodyamically since 2010 and got our certification in 2016, we've never put a Biodynamic seal on our bottles, mostly because of the restrictions on winemaking, most notably the prohibition of any acid additions, which can be necessary to ensure proper fermentation and bottle aging in a warm climate like Paso Robles.

But ROC feels different enough from anything that's come before that we decided this was a certification worth displaying. So we've been spending the last few months figuring out how to navigate a process that involves approvals from the ROA (who runs the ROC program), CCOF (our organic certifier), and the TTB (which oversees federal label approvals). Because the ROC program is so new, and because the NOP standards treat alcohol differently than other foodstuffs, we've been breaking new ground. And it turned out that because the ROC logo contains the word "organic" written out, we needed also to include the seal of our organic certifier and the text "Made with organically grown grapes certified organic by CCOF" to be compliant. I'm not sure I would have wanted to do that without the ROC logo, but I'm totally fine with them both in conjunction. The final result: 

ROC and CCOF Logos on 2021 Cotes Blanc

Many of these first seven wines are only going to be sold at the winery. But the 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc will start to go out to wholesalers as soon as next week. So there's a chance you could see it on a shelf, or on a table at a restaurant, as soon as this summer. And it's just the beginning. As the rest of our estate wines from 2021 get bottled, they too will carry these two seals. We're hoping that they spark interest and start conversations. Wine label real estate is precious space; you only have a relatively few square inches to tell people what you and your wine are all about. We're proud to dedicate a piece of that space to this effort.


Into the black: tasting every Tablas Creek Syrah, 2002-2021

There are two ways that we try to work systematically through the collection of wines in our library. At the beginning of each year, we taste every wine we made ten years earlier. These horizontal retrospectives give us an in-depth look at a particular year, and a check-in with how our full range of wines is doing with a decade in bottle. I wrote up the results from our 2012 retrospective tasting back in January. And then each summer we conduct a comprehensive vertical tasting of a single wine, where we open every vintage we've ever made and use that to assess how the wine ages and if we want to adjust our approach in any way. This also serves as a pre-tasting for a public event in August at which we share the highlights.

In looking at which wines we'd done recent vertical tastings of, I was surprised to learn that we'd never done a deep dive into our varietal Syrah. Some of that can be explained, I think, by the fact that we don't make one every year. A wine you don't have aging in the cellar isn't as top-of-mind as one that you're tasting in its youth and wondering how it might evolve. But it's still an oversight, since Syrah is a famously ageworthy grape and one that we often note in our 10-year retrospective tastings is still youthful at a decade in bottle. So, it was with anticipation that our cellar team and I joined together and opened every vintage of Syrah, from our first-ever 2002 to the 2021 that we blended recently. Note that there are several gaps in the chronology, as Syrah's early sprouting makes it susceptible to low yields in frost vintages (like 2009 and 2011) and its dark color and reliable density means that there are years where it all gets snapped up in our blends to give them more seriousness (like 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018):

Syrah vertical tasting Jun 2022

Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver, and Director of Marketing Ian Consoli. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our website if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released. I can't remember why we never made a web page for the 2002, but if you have questions about it let me know in the comments and I'll answer as best I can.

  • 2002 Syrah: The nose and the bricking of the color at the edge of the glass both show some signs of age, with aromas of meat drippings, mint, and aged balsamic at the fore. With a little time, the fruit (in the guise of chocolate-covered cherry) comes out. The palate is more youthful, with flavors of black plum, baker's chocolate, and foresty earth, still-substantial tannins, and good acids. There's a dustiness to the tannins that betrays the wine's age, but overall it's still in a position to go out another decade. A great start to the tasting.
  • 2003 Syrah: A softer, more inviting nose, with aromas of nutmeg, black raspberry, leather, flint, and juniper spice. Quite pretty on the palate, with flavors of leather, gingerbread, olive tapenade, and and soy marinade. The finish was brooding, with umami teriyaki flavors and nice acids keeping things fresh, though the tannins were mostly resolved. Felt like it was toward the end of its peak drinking, with the fruit elements perhaps not likely to last much longer.
  • 2004 Syrah: An immediately appealing nose of red and black licorice, cassis, leather, menthol, and a meaty, earthy note. The palate showed lovely sweet blueberry fruit, semi-sweet chocolate, and chalky tannins, plush and long. A nice lightly salty mineral note came out on the finish. One of our consensus favorites from the tasting, and absolutely at its peak.
  • 2005 Syrah: A slightly wilder nose than the 2004, with aromas of aged meat, leather, soy, and minty eucalyptus spice, like a hike in the high Sierra. The mouth is similar, but with a nice dark-red-fruited element too, currant or a raspberry reduction. Lovely texture, with some tannin left and good acids on the finish that left lingering notes of chaparral and chocolate powder. Another favorite, and also seemingly right at peak. 
  • 2006 Syrah: A nose that was more impressive than appealing: iron filings, teriyaki, and crushed mint, with some black raspberry coming out with air. The palate is plush upon entry, with notes of chocolate-covered cherry, marzipan, and mocha, then big tannins come out to take over, highlighted by solid acidity. It felt to us maybe not quite at peak yet, with the acids highlighting the tannins in a slightly unflattering way.
  • 2007 Syrah: More youthful on the nose than the wines that preceded it, but in an immensely appealing way: black fruit and brambles and pepper spice, with a meaty venison note that made Neil comment, "Now that's a glorious nose". The palate is mouth-coating, with blackberry and black licorice notes and chalky tannins. As good as this was, it still had the structure and balance to age, and would be amazing right now with a rosemary-crusted leg of lamb.
  • 2008 Syrah: A quieter nose in comparison to the 2007 (which was admittedly a tough act to follow), with Provencal herbs and wild strawberry notes, and a little cherry compote character in which we thought we detected a touch of oxidation. The palate was pretty but undramatic, with dried red fruits and sarsaparilla notes, nice texture, and a little saline minerality on the finish. We weren't sure if this wine, from a good-not-great vintage, was nearing the end of its life or if it's in a phase it would come out of. I'd lean toward the latter.
  • 2010 Syrah: A strange nose at first that we variously described as horseradish, hops, and sun-dried tomatoes. That blew off to show aromas of soy, aged meat, pepper spice, and grape candy. The palate was a little more traditional but still something of an outlier, with flavors of bruised plum, bittersweet chocolate, cola, and sweet spice. There's still some tannic grip. This wine, from our coolest-ever vintage with very long hang time, was always likely to be different from its neighbors. If I had to guess, I'd think that it is going through a phase and will come out the other side into something fascinating. But I'd hold off on opening one for now.
  • 2013 Syrah: A lovely dark nose of cola and minty black fruit, with additional notes of anise, roasted walnuts, and lavender florality. The palate has medium body, nicely poised between fruity and savory elements. Chalky tannins come out on the end highlighting flavors of plum skin and menthol.
  • 2014 Syrah: Dark but inviting on the nose, with notes of blackberry, eucalyptus, anise, and candied violets. The palate shows lively tangy black raspberry fruit, with lovely texture and chalky tannins. The finish shows notes of chocolate and a graphite-like minerality. This is still young but shows tremendous potential, and was our favorite of the "middle-aged" wines in the lineup.
  • 2017 Syrah. Notably different on the nose with a green peppercorn note jumping out of the glass from the higher percentage of whole-cluster fermentation we did in 2017. Under that, aromas of soy marinade, black olive, and high-toned pomegranate fruit. The palate shows flavors of dried strawberries, new leather, and a little cedary oak. The finish is gentle and composed, with the lower acidity you also get from whole cluster fermentation. I thought this was fascinating more than actively pleasurable, and am happy we dialed back the stem percentages in more recent vintages. 
  • 2019 Syrah: A more classic nose of black cherry, anise, crushed peppermint, and violets. The palate is tangy with flavors of plum skin and baker's chocolate, chalky tannins, and lingering texture. Youthful but impressive and delicious. There's just a hint of the green peppercorn stem character in this wine, and I liked the balance we struck.
  • 2020 Syrah: Just bottled last week, and it felt a little beaten up by the process, with the aromatic and flavor elements appearing one by one rather than integrated and layered. The nose shows notes of sugarplum and vanilla, menthol and sweet tobacco. The palate was plush, with black fruit and spice, and a little sweet oak coming out on the finish, along with substantial chalky tannins. This will be fun to watch come together in coming months; our plan is tentatively to give it five months in bottle and to release it in November.
  • 2021 Syrah: Although we've made the blending decisions and know which lots will be going into our 2021 Syrah, it hasn't been blended yet. That's a project we'll tackle after next week's bottling. So Chelsea pulled a composite sample of this wine. It's worth noting that we always like the actual blend more than the composite. But that said, it was impressive: meaty, with blueberry and chocolate on the nose, and a little briary wildness. The mouth is structured, quite tannic at this stage, but also plush with flavors of black fig, black olive, crushed rock, and a little meatiness like Spanish chorizo. All the pieces of a blockbuster. It will be a pleasure to watch where this goes. 

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Syrah's aging curve is perhaps the longest of any of the wines we make. I am proud of how most of our wines age. That includes our Mourvedre-based reds, our Roussanne-based whites, and varietals like Tannat. But these Syrahs were still eye-opening. There were wines more than fifteen years out (I'm looking at you, 2006) that felt like they could still use another few years. And wines nearly a decade old already (hey there, 2014) that still felt like they could have been new releases. That's not to say you should never open a young Syrah. I don't think anyone opening a 2014, or 2017, or 2019 is going to be disappointed with what they find, between the ample black fruit, the rich texture, and the minerality and spice. Just pair it with something substantial enough to play off, like the rosemary-crusted leg of lamb we were all dreaming about during the tasting. But if you want a wine you can reliably age a couple of decades, I don't know that there's a wine we make I'd recommend more.
  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got votes were 2002 (1), 2004 (4), 2005 (4), 2007 (3), 2013 (1), 2014 (3), 2017 (4), and 2019 (4). That's eight of the fourteen vintages that got a "favorite" vote, across a range of different sorts of growing seasons, different vine ages, and different cellar treatments. It's just a tremendous grape.
  • We need to plant more Syrah. See the previous point. But it was also a bummer not having Syrah from vintages like 2016 and 2018 to taste. If you go back and look at the blogs I posted sharing our experience around the blending table those years (2016 here, and 2018 here) both times I remarked on just how impressive the Syrah lots were. I have vivid memories from 2016 about looking around the table and commenting that we were going to make the best varietal Syrah we'd ever made. It didn't turn out that way; the Syrah lots were so impressive that blends like Esprit and Panoplie snapped up most of the quantity in our blind tasting trials, and we weren't left with enough to bottle varietally. We have an acre or so that we planted last year, and we'll get additional tonnage off some of our oldest blocks thanks to the success we've had with layering canes to fill in holes from missing vines, but I'm now thinking that's not enough and we should plan for a few more acres on Jewel Ridge. 
  • Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.
  • Sound fun? Join us on August 14th! We will be hosting a version of this event that is open to the public, and Neil and I will be leading the discussion and sharing insights into how the wines came to be the way they are. The vintages we chose to share are 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020. You can read more about the event, and get your tickets, here.

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


The Scruffy Hill Block: A Dry-Farming Success Story

Scruffy Hill Long View DownLooking down through the Scruffy Hill Block

We talk a lot about our Scruffy Hill block, planted head-trained and dry-farmed to a mix of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne in 2005 and 2006. It's the source of much of the fruit that we use for the En Gobelet and (increasingly) in Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, and perhaps even more importantly the test case for the 60+ dry-farmed acres on the block we call Jewel Ridge. For all that, I realized I haven't really ever dived into the place here on the blog. So let's remedy that.

The Name
Our original property of 120 acres included about 100 plantable acres on the northwest side of Las Tablas Creek, about 12 plantable acres on the southeast side of Las Tablas Creek, and about 8 acres of creekbed. The existing well here and the new well we drilled in 1990 were both in the larger parcel on the north side, where we ended up putting our winery building, tasting room, and nursery. If you've visited the property, this is probably what you think of as Tablas Creek Vineyard. We started planting this piece in 1992 and were fully planted by 2004. Those plantings were mostly trellised and irrigated (at least to get the vines established) although beginning in 2000 we started planting some of the valley-bottom, deeper soil block head-trained and dry-farmed. 

The 12 acres on the other side of Las Tablas Creek provided a different challenge. We didn't have a well over there, so we weren't able to plant irrigated vineyard. And the steep hillsides and shallower soils meant that we weren't sure how dry-farmed vines would do. So while the rest of the vineyard was neatly planted and maintained, this block was allowed to grow wild each year, then that cover crop was disked into the soil once each spring. As this was before we had a flock of sheep, it got pretty overgrown each year, and we called it "Scruffy Hill". In the map below you can see it at the lower right, to the right of the arrow pointing north.  Tablas_Creek_Vineyard_Map_2014

The Choice to Dry-Farm
We are believers in the power of dry-farming (maybe better understood as unirrigated farming) to produce grapes with maximum character of place. That should be intuitive; topsoil is pretty similar no matter where you are, while the deeper soils have more distinctive fingerprints. Traditional irrigated farming rewards the roots that sit nearest the drip emitters, so the vines tend to grow much of their root mass in the topsoil. Dry-farmed grapevines have much deeper root systems as the plants are forced to explore for water. 

As we approached the challenge of planting Scruffy Hill, we looked to models old and new. [I wrote about this in a blog series on dry-farming from 2015.] After our research, we felt confident that if we planted at low density, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which it could pull scarce water, we'd have a chance of the vineyard thriving. You don't have to look far to see 100-year-old vineyards planted this way here in Paso Robles; the Zinfandel and other heritage vines that first established the region in the wine world were planted before irrigation technology existed. And Scruffy Hill, planted in a 12 x 12 diamond pattern at just 350 vines per acre, has thrived. Walking through the vineyard block you can feel them radiating health, bright green, bushy, and robust, like this Grenache vine:

Scruffy Hill Grenache closeup

Although the low vine density means that our overall yields off Scruffy Hill are around two tons per acre, we've found that the block suffers less than our closer-spaced blocks do when we have a drought year or a heat spike. Part of that can be explained by the deep root system. But part of it is simple math. Our trellised, irrigated blocks have between 1600 and 1800 vines per acre. So while a drought year might bring half of our normal 26" of rainfall, our wide-spaced, dry-farmed vines still get (per-vine) roughly double the rainfall per vine than the closer-spaced blocks do in an average rainfall year. Yes, we can supplement via the irrigation drip lines if we want, but we just can't put enough water on the vineyard to make up the difference of more than a foot of rain.

To help the vines make it through their first two years, we used a very old-fashioned irrigation technique: 5-gallon buckets, with a hole drilled in the bottom so that the water came out slowly enough that it would be absorbed instead of running off the surface. They got one bucket each year, around mid-summer. Other than that, and since then, they've been on their own.  

The Soils
All of our vineyard is rugged, with large concentrations of calcareous deposits. Those high-calcium soils are a big piece of why we chose this spot in the first place. But there are still differences, with lower, flatter areas tending to have more topsoil over those limestone layers. Scruffy Hill, though, is all pretty steep, and the calcareous soils are evident:

Scruffy Hill Grenache and Soil

Here's a closeup. An easy life for the vines, this is not:

Scruffy Hill Soil

The Significance
The vines on Scruffy Hill, as they've matured, have come to be more and more important in our top red blends. It has since 2010 been the overwhelming source of our En Gobelet, which we make entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed estate vineyard blocks, and dedicate to our wine club members each year. In more recent years, lots from Scruffy Hill have found their way into Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie as well. But the block's most important contribution to the work we do has been as a test case. When we bought the next parcel to the south of us in 2011, the success we had with Scruffy Hill gave us the confidence to plant it entirely head-trained, dry-farmed, wide-spaced pattern. That piece (which we now call Jewel Ridge) points our way toward success even in a future where ground water supplies are unreliable or unavailable. We also planted a big section of our westernmost block to head-trained, wide-spaced Grenache and Mourvedre, and are looking for relevant opportunities to do the same as we start the process of replanting weaker blocks in our original vineyard. For now we're at about half our acreage planted in this pattern, and that proportion is likely to grow. All this became viable because of the success we saw with Scruffy Hill.

Scruffy Hill Right Now
For all that, I don't want to downplay how great (and beautiful) a vineyard block it is in its own right. So let's take a little tour. At this time of year, the vineyard is changing fast. A month ago it had barely sprouted. Now the canes are a couple of feet long and still growing fast. The canopy of leaves is dense. This helps shade the clusters of fruit from the intense sun. Later in the growing season, the weight of the clusters will pulls down on the canes, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew. But for now you can see how vertical the shoots are, by and large:

Scruffy Hill Long View

Zooming in toward the vines shows that the early grapes, like the Grenache vine below, are in the middle of flowering, although later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise aren't quite there yet:

Scruffy Hill Flowering Grenache

I'll leave you with one more photo, looking up at essentially the same view that the first photo gave you looking down. Both the Mourvedre vines in the foreground and the Grenache vines toward the top of the hill are looking great, under a classic Paso Robles early summer blue sky. We might not know where these grapes will be going, but I'm already sure it will be someplace great. Scruffy Hill cleans up pretty well, it turns out:

Scruffy Hill Overview Square