Does a dry fall mean a dry winter season? Less than you might think.

Last week, I wrote about the dry, cool beginning to winter that we're seeing this year in Paso Robles. In my research for the piece, I made a surprising and reassuring discovery. It turned out that having a totally dry October, as we did this year, didn't have any predictive effect on our future rainfall for those winters. There were five such Octobers in the 23 years since we installed our weather station in 1996, and for the rest of the rain season (November-May) we averaged the same 22.2" of rain that we did in the 18 not-totally-dry Octobers. Yes, we missed out on the rain we didn't get that month (an average of 1.5") but it didn't appear that the conditions that produced these dry months lingered in any meaningful way later into the winter.

That got me wondering: was that true for future months? Did low rainfall in October and November mean we were likely to see a drier December-May? Did low rainfall October-December mean drier January-May? Or were the weather patterns truly independent, as my first-pass analysis last week suggested? It turned out that a dry month or months does have some predictive effect, but it's less than you might think. I'll present my findings below, but first a note on my methodology.

I decided first that using "totally dry" as my measuring point wouldn't be reasonable. We do of course have winter months without any rainfall, but after October they're rare. So, I decided that for a period to qualify as "dry", we'd need to have seen less than half of our annual average winter rainfall to date. So, for the period through October, "dry" meant less than 0.85" of total rainfall since July. For the period through November, "dry" meant less than 1.8" of rainfall since July. And for the period through December, "dry" meant less than 4.1" of rainfall since July. This does mean that the results are correlated, since this is a cumulative total, but it seemed better than counting a winter like 2009-10 as "dry" through November because we received less than 1/10" of rain in November, while ignoring that we received a nearly 10" storm in October.

So, what predictive effect does a dry early season have? About 15%, in my calculations. Here's a quick recap of the averages. At the bottom I've added in some graphs that highlight how the dry early seasons have played out.

Period Avg Rain, Rest of Winter Avg Rain (Dry Years) Avg Rain (Wet Years) # of Dry Years
Through October 22.49 20.84 24.28 12
Through November 20.49 16.92 22.05 7
Through December 16.04 14.31 16.52 5

As you might expect, the data is noisiest when you're looking at early-season results, both because there are more dry years (12) and you'd expect to have received a lower percentage of your total precipitation. In the below graph, I've marked years that met my definition of dry through October with orange columns. Wetter years are blue:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through October

While the averages are still somewhat predictive, there are some very wet winters that followed dry early seasons, including last year. Looking at years that are dry through the end of November shows a more obvious correlation:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through November

In the seven years where we had less than 50% of our average rainfall at the end of November, we only saw one year where we recovered to even hit our long-term average (2005-06). Some of that is the lower average future rainfall (23% less) but a lot of it is that we'd already gotten through enough of the rainy season that the difference between what we've banked in a dry year (1.2") and our average from our wet years (4.7") starts to become more significant. Looking at the data through the end of December doesn't change the picture that much:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through December

It's probably unsurprising that when it's been dry through December, we're likely to be looking at a dry winter. But even more than in the previous chart, the biggest difference isn't in the future rainfall we'd expect (we received an average of 13% less rain January-June in those years that were drier through December) but in how much rain we've banked, or not. We'd normally expect to have received 8.17" of rain through the end of December, a little more than a third of our annual total. In the five notably dry years, we'd only accumulated an average of 2.7" to date, while in the other eighteen years we'd averaged nearly four times that already: 9.6".

What does this mean for us this winter? In practical terms, not much. Like always, we're at the mercy of the weather patterns, and what we've seen so far this fall has been consistently dry, with a persistent area of high pressure diverting storms well north of us. But for the first time, forecasts are starting to sound more hopeful, and it looks like there's a chance that this pattern will break down by the end of the month: 

For all that, I feel like the results of my digging into the weather details have done some good for my state of mind. Each week without rain at this time of year feels long. And as nice as it is to be able to go out and enjoy the beautiful sunny afternoons, I enjoy them less because of this nagging feeling that it's wrong, and we really need the rain. Knowing that the predictive effects of past early season dry spells have been modest, and that we have 90% of our rainy season in front of us (and fully two-thirds after January 1st) is a good reminder to be patient. Storms will be coming. Fingers crossed that they'll come soon.

Dark clouds over Tablas Creek Nov 2015


A Dry, Chilly Beginning to the 2019 Winter Season

Those of you who have been following California's recurring struggles with fire won't be surprised to hear that it's been dry. Record low relative humidity has been a major contributing factor to the wildfires that have raged in both northern and southern California. Here in Paso Robles, we haven't seen the same high winds that fueled this year's terrible fire season, and one somewhat comforting fact is that those sorts of wind events are quite rare here, as the Santa Ana winds that affect southern California don't often make it this far north, while the Diablo winds that affect northern California don't typically make it this far south. Still, it's been really dry, with no rain yet, relative humidity dropping into the mid-single digits the last few days, and the lowest dew point I can ever remember seeing (-3°F) on Halloween. There have been several mornings over the last couple of weeks where I've gone out to my car in the morning, had it be below freezing, and yet have no frost on the windshield because it's just been too dry.

What may not be so obvious from the news coverage is that it's been quite cold so far as we've transitioned from fall to winter. We've already had several frost nights in our lower-lying spots, and the vines are mostly in dormancy. Check out the difference in the look of one of our old Roussanne blocks from a month ago:

Roussanne block October 2019

To today:

Roussanne Block November 2019

And we haven't even been the coldest spot in Paso Robles. If you look at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather summary for October 31st (the day with the amazingly low dew point) you can see that there were several local weather stations that measured lows around 20°F and one that even dropped into the teens. And yes, even on this day with some very cold mornings, we had warm afternoons. The diurnal temperature swings, always big here in Paso Robles, reach extreme (50+°F) levels during this season:

Weather Summary - October 31 2019

Even with the cold nights, the hilltops are still showing nice fall colors, and are likely to until we see a hard freeze. This photo, of one of our Syrah blocks, is just up the hill from the Roussanne block I photographed above:

2019 Fall Foliage - Syrah

How unusual is all this, and what does it mean for our prospects for a wet winter? Not particularly, and not much. We see our first rainfall of the winter by the end of October about three-quarters of the time. The rest of the years, which have included 1996, 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2017, it's been dry into November. A lack of early rainfall has not particularly impacted what the rest of the winter has looked like; those five years have averaged 22.5 inches of winter rainfall, only about an inch and a half different from the 24.2 inch 20-year average. As the 1.5 inch difference is exactly what we've averaged in our last twenty Octobers, there's essentially no correlation between a dry October and a dry winter. That's a reassuring thought.

While we'd like it wet, the cold is a good thing, as it forces the vines into dormancy and keeps them from expending extra energy at a time of year when there's no fruit to ripen. And we'll take what we can get, while we wait for the long-term forecast to show some hope for rain. We'd like to get our cover crop growing, so our sheep have something to eat. And rain would put to bed any lingering worries about this year's wildfire season. There no rain forecast for the next two weeks: more dry weather, with sunny, warm days in the upper 70s and low 80s, with chilly nights dropping to around freezing. But while our vines would like to usher in the rainy season, that sounds like pretty ideal weather for people. If you're coming to Paso Robles between now and Thanksgiving, it sounds like you can expect conditions to be pretty great.

Meanwhile, we'll look forward to the greens, yellows, and oranges of the harvest season transitioning to the softer browns of fall, like the Mourvedre block below. It may not have autumn's drama, but it's beautiful in its own right.

Late fall 2019 Mourvedre


A Mid-Summer Vineyard Check-In Suggests 2019 Harvest Will Be Latest Since 2011

On Friday, I joined more than a hundred other members of the Paso Robles wine community at the California Mid-State Fair's wine awards. It's always a fun celebration, and I thought that this year's honorees -- Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards for Winemaker of the Year, Paul Hoover of Still Waters Vineyards for Grape Grower of the Year, and (posthumously) Scott Welcher of Wild Horse and Opolo as Wine Industry Person of the Year -- were all highly deserving. The awards were presented by some of the icons of the local industry (Gary Eberle, Ken Volk, and Austin Hope) and the great turnout was a testament to both how well liked all the honorees are and to the work that the Mid-State Fair has done to involve the wine community in recent years.

After the awards, we stuck around with our kids and wandered the fair's Midway, ate our annual allotment of funnel cake, and called it a relatively early night because we were all freezing as soon as the sun set and the wind kicked up, particularly Sebastian, our 11-year-old who decided it would be a good idea to go on a water ride at sundown.

OK, pause for a record scratch here, to appreciate how weird it is to type freezing and fair in the same sentence. Typically, the Mid-State Fair week is scorching here in Paso Robles, and you call it a day after a few hours because you can only stand so much 100+ heat. It is, after all, the second half of July, when the average high temperature in Paso Robles is 93°F. Last July (admittedly, a hot one) saw 14 different days top 100°F and another four miss by less than a degree. But at 8:30pm on Friday, as we drove home, it was 60°F, and downright chilly with the wind even inside our newly-purchased fair sweatshirts.

We've had that experience a lot this spring and summer, and the vineyard has been thriving in the comparatively cool weather. With only one day having topped 100 so far this year, and good water in the ground from last winter's generous rainfall, you would hope that the grapevines would be looking green and healthy. And they are. I posted this video over the weekend taking a look at one of our Grenache blocks:

Zooming in, the clusters are resolutely green, at a time of year when in most years this decade I've been posting pictures of veraison. On the property here, we would expect to see veraison first in Syrah. But it doesn't feel like it's close, with some berries still showing the oval shape they do as they are growing. The clusters, though, are beautiful and relatively plentiful, which will be a nice change from most recent years where Syrah was scarce:

Syrah mid-July

White grapes do go through veraison, although it's subtle and harder to photograph. That said, even Viognier (below) shows none of the hints of yellow that it gets as it nears ripeness:

Viognier mid-July

Mourvedre isn't even full-sized yet, with the uneven look that many clusters have at this time of year, with some berries twice the size of others:

Mourvedre mid-July

Grenache is still green, but the story there isn't that as much as it is the shatter that we're seeing. Shatter happens when cold, wet, or windy weather during flowering prevents full fertilization of the flowers, and you end up with missing berries. Some grapes are more prone to it than others, and Grenache is notoriously susceptible. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as in years when there isn't any shatter we have to thin this heavy producer more rigorously. A little shatter, like we're seeing this year, actually makes our job easier:

Grenache mid-July

What does all this mean for harvest? Well, we're behind where we were last year, when we didn't really get going until the second week of September, and three or more weeks behind warmer years like 2013, 2014, and 2016. Is it possible that we're looking at a vintage more like 2010 and 2011, when we didn't get going until late September and were still picking in mid-November? I doubt it. We're forecast for a week of very warm weather starting today. That will help things catch up a bit. And after all, while it's been cool, it's still been warmer than either of those unusual years. The temperature chart below has a line for each year this decade, with 2019 in red to make it easily visible. The 2010 and 2011 lines show consistently colder growing seasons:

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

So, while I'm not expecting a late-September start, I think we're likely to be waiting until mid-September to see anything significant off the estate, and I think it's a better than 50/50 proposition that we're still harvesting into November. But that's not a bad thing. The climate here in Paso Robles is pretty reliable until mid-November, and I tend to prefer the balance and character of vintages with longer hang times. Meanwhile, we'll keep our eyes out for veraison, which kicks off the roughly 6-week sprint to harvest. So far, so good.


What I would have said if I'd given a speech at our 30th Anniversary Party

On Friday night, we hosted an industry party to celebrate our 30th anniversary. It was a wonderful evening, with about 350 friends and colleagues, beautiful weather (we got lucky), great food by Chef Jeff Scott, music by the Mark Adams Band, and masterful coordination by Faith Wells. I'll share a few photos, all taken by the talented Heather Daenitz (see more of her work at www.craftandcluster.com). We brought in some chairs and couches, and converted our parking lot to space to sit, mingle, and browse the memorabilia we'd pulled together.

Seating group on parking lot

Expanding to the parking lot spread the event out, making sure that no area felt cramped, and gave the event two focuses: the food, near our dry-laid limestone wall, and the wine tables, on our patio.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Food and Solar Panels

We decided to open every wine we're currently making, as well as several selections out of our library. We figured if not then, when?

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Wines

Chef Jeff's menu focused on things that were raised or harvested here at Tablas Creek, including lamb, pork, honey, olive oil, eggs, pea tendrils, and herbs. The egg strata, made from 16 dozen of our eggs and flavored with our olive oil, was one of my favorites: 

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Egg Strata

One of my favorite things that Faith suggested we do was to put together photo walls, each representing a decade of our history. This gave us an excuse to go through our massive photo archives and try to pull out pictures that showed how things had changed.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Photo Wall 3

In the end, though, the event was, as most events are, really about the people who came. We had winemakers from around California, almost the whole current Tablas Creek team and many of the former employees who helped bring us where we are, local restaurateurs and hoteliers, members of the community organizations and charities we support, and even local government officials. Jean-Pierre Perrin (below, left) made the trip from France, and I know it was fun for people who had only heard his name to get to meet the man so responsible for the creation of this enterprise.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - JPP & Michel

The Paso Robles wine community is remarkable for the extent to which it really is a community, made up of people who live here and are involved in the broader local community, from schools to restaurants to youth sports and charities. Getting a large group like this together isn't so much an industry party as it is a gathering of friends. And I couldn't shake the feeling all day that this was like a wedding, with old and new friends arriving from far away, and people stopping me again and again to say, warmly, "congratulations".

It was this aspect of Paso Robles that I'd been intending to highlight in the brief remarks I had planned to give to the group. But I decided in the middle of the event that doing so would have interrupted the event's momentum and turned something that felt like an organic gathering into something more staged and self-centered. And that was the last thing I wanted to do, so I just let the evening take its course. 

That said, looking at the photos makes me feel that much more confident in what I had planned to say. The event wasn't the right moment. But I thought I'd share them now. I didn't write it out, but these are, more or less, the remarks I'd planned to share:

Thank you all for being here. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it's been 30 years since my dad, as well as Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin (who is with us here tonight) celebrated the purchase of the property with a lunch from KFC on the section of the vineyard that we know call Scruffy Hill. And not just because all the great restaurant folks here this evening are a case in point that the Paso Robles culinary scene has come a long way from those days.
I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about 10 things that we got right (and wrong) at the beginning of our project. [Note: that blog can be found here.] Things we got wrong, like that we were only going to make one red and one white wine each year, or that we didn't need a tasting room. And things we got right, like that the climate and soils in this place was going to be great for these varieties, and that if we planted the right grapes, whites could thrive here. But the biggest piece of our success isn't something that we got right or wrong; it's really neither of those things. It wasn't on our radar at all. In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed this crazy project to succeed is the wine community that we joined here in Paso Robles. It is this community that has become a destination for wine lovers and for some of the most talented winemakers in the country. It is this community that has embraced Rhone varieties, and blends, both of which were major leaps into the unknown for an American winery 30 years ago. And it's this community which has welcomed us, interlopers from France and Vermont, to be a part of its vibrantly experimental mix.
I often think, when I reflect on the anniversary, that 30 years old is the age at which, in France, they finally start taking a vineyard seriously. I am proud of what we've accomplished, but even more excited about what we're working on now. Thank you for your support over the first generation of Tablas Creek. I look forward to celebrating many future milestones with you.

The idea that for all we've done, we're just getting started, was the inspiration for the party favor we sent people home with: a baby grapevine from our nursery. We may have been here for a generation. But it's really still just the beginning.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Vines

So, if you came, thank you for helping us celebrate. If you couldn't come, thank you for helping us make it 30 years. We couldn't have done it without you.


Taking One Last Look at the Winter of 2018-19

Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.

The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:

New Growth April 2019

As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2018-19

In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:

Neil lost in the cover crop April 2019

As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.

Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:

Striated Vineyard April 2019

It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:

CA Poppies April 2019

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.


30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong)

I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. I don't have a photo of that lunch, but I do have one of the ceremonial planting of the first vine, from 1992:

Bob Haas & Jean Pierre Perrin planting first Tablas vine 1992

1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and creating a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.

I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.

Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country
This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer.  But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé. 

Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here
In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also some that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.

Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine
This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.

And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. Opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great options for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.

Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs
Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most important.

Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery
With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that make this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.

Right #3: Organic viticulture works
The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.  

Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em!
At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business.  Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.

The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.

Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key
Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris. 

I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years. 

Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel 
Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.

One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.

Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes
Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.

Conclusion: The next 30 Years
Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.

Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.

Unnamed


Spring Equinox Update: Paso Robles is Still Absurdly Beautiful

About two months ago, I posted a blog Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now, sharing some photos I'd taken in the newly-green vineyard, ground fog wending its way around vines, solar panels, and olive trees. Fast-forward two months, and we're seeing the lovely consequences of combination of the last two weeks of sun and the nearly 30 inches of rain that we've received. The result has been a vineyard as green as I can ever remember, set off against impossibly blue skies and the dark brown of the still-dormant grapevines. To wit:

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Square

Although we'd had two dry weeks before today's half-inch of rain, there is water everywhere, seeping out of hillsides and running merrily in Las Tablas Creek. You can see a puddle sitting in the swale between the east-facing Vermentino vines (foreground) and the west-facing Mourvedre vines (behind the frost fans).

Tablas Creek Crosshairs Block

The vines themselves are still dormant thanks to a series of below-freezing nights, although the warmth of the sun suggests that we'll see bud-break before too long. In fact, this was the week last year when we first saw leaves. I don't expect that this year -- it has been colder, and all the water in the soil is keeping soil temperatures down -- but early April seems like a pretty safe bet. So, views like this, with a bare Counoise trunk silhouetted against the blue sky, will be short-lived:

Head-trained Counoise vine at Tablas Creek

The dormant trunks make amazing patterns in the vineyard, like the Mourvedre cordons below:

Tablas Creek Mourvedre Cordons

Still, as impressive as the green grass is, it's the sky at this time of year that always steals the show for me. Here's a view looking up toward our tallest hill, over Counoise and Grenache blocks. You can see the still-unpruned Grenache in the foreground; we wait longest to prune this, our most frost-prone grape:

Tablas Creek looking up toward highest hill

I'll leave you with one last view of the vineyard contours, looking up the same hill of Vermentino in the first two photos. The sweep of the land comes through, I hope. 

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Horizontal

Up next, we hope: what should be a spectacular wildflower season. The superbloom is in full swing just a little to the south of us. As the days continue to lengthen, and the sun warms, we should see an explosion of color here too. And when we do, I promise we'll share.


Assessing the Lovely Rainy Chilly 2018-2019 Winter So Far

OK, I may have given my feelings away in the title of this blog. So far, this winter has been wonderful. We got four inches of rain in November to kick things off (a total topped only three times in the 23 years we've had our weather station going). This got the cover crop growing and began the process of incorporating the compost we'd spread around the vineyard into the soil. A chilly but sunny December ensured that the vines were fully dormant and the cover crop well established, and then our rainy January (9+ inches) and February (10+ inches and counting) brought us to where we are now: a year where as of February 25th we've already reached our annual winter rainfall average, and are about 130% of where we'd expect to be in a normal year.

Tablas Creek rainfall by month winter 2018-19

Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:

Green Tablas Creek Vineyard February 2019

For the winter, we've already reached the 25 inches that is our long-term average, thanks mostly to the last two months. And there is more rain in the forecast; if we finish the year at the same 130% of normal that we are to date, that would put us at 32.5 inches, not quite at the heights we achieved before the 1998, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2017 vintages, but close:

Tablas Creek Rainfall by Year 1996-2019

There is water seeping out of hillsides and flowing merrily in Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard dogs have been returning from their romps exhausted and muddy:

Las Tablas Creek

You may have to be Californian (or at least to have lived here for a while, and through our recent drought) to understand how exciting the sound of running water is. Our Shepherd even made a video for those who want to savor it: 

So, on the water front, so far, so good. How about on the temperature front? Regular readers of the blog know that below-freezing nights aren't unusual in Paso Robles in the wintertime, but we've seen an unusual concentration recently. After only one frost night in November, we got four in December, five (including four consecutive nights in the mid-20s) in January, and a whopping fifteen so far in February, including the last eight. While rainy months and frosty months aren't unusual here, months that are both rainy and frosty are, because typically it only freezes when it's clear enough for radiational cooling to take place. Unusually this month, we've had cloudy nights below freezing, culminating in a rare snowy afternoon here last week:

What does all this mean for the 2019 vintage? It's early to say. But there have been years where late February already felt like spring, with our local almond trees in bloom and us starting to worry about bud break. For the grapevines, the two most important factors that they sense and which together cue them to come out of dormancy are the amount of the daytime sunlight (less this year because of all the clouds) and the soil temperature (well below average due to the constant rainfall and the cold nights and days). So, I would predict that we'll see a later beginning to the growing season than in recent years, and likely later even than last year's late-March bud-break, which was itself a bit of a throwback to the 2000's. That would be great; the benefit of a later budbreak is that we have fewer white-knuckle nights where we have to worry about frost, since by mid-May we are past that worry. If we can push budbreak back into April, so much the better.

So, while this winter has produced more Californian grumbling about the cold and rain than I remember hearing before, we'll take it. The vineyard is in great shape, and the vines still fully dormant. The persistent rain has meant an incredibly green cover crop with plenty of food for our flock. And the fast-moving weather systems have given us rainbow after rainbow. We ❤ you, winter in Paso Robles.

Rainbow over paso robles


Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now

Last week, we got four more inches of rain over three days, bringing our January total to 8.66 inches and our winter total to 14 inches.  We're slightly ahead of where we'd expect to be at this time of year, and what's better, it's come in surges, with sunny interludes in between that allow the ground to dry out a bit and the cover crop to grow. The net result is a landscape that is as far away from summer's stark golden brown as it's possible to imagine:

Looking down past solar panels to nursery area

I've been sharing these photos bit by bit over our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and they've been racking up some of the highest numbers of likes I can remember, so they seem to have touched a chord, particularly with the northeastern two-thirds of the country seeing polar weather right now.

I thought it would be nice to collect some of my favorites in one place. In no particular order, starting with a look down over the low-lying area we call Nipple Flat, showing both the undulating lines of the winter vineyard and the fog that's been settling in our valleys each night:

Looking down Nipple Flat

The moisture in the air that transforms the winter landscape can be hard to imagine if you've only visited in summer, but as I've written before, our winter climate is as much rain forest as our summer is desert:

Top of New Hill

The battle waged daily between the fog lifting off the saturated ground and the sun rising makes for a landscape that changes by the minute each morning:

Row 9

That rising sun makes for some great drama in photographs, like this one of one of our 39 owl boxes, most occupied now with nesting barn owls:

Owl box and rising sun
By the time most of our visitors arrive, that fog has largely burned off, and the dramatic green of the grass and blue of the sky are the lasting impressions: 

Solar panels and Mount Mourvedre

We know that summer is the typical season when most guests visit Paso Robles Wine Country. But winter is my favorite season here. I hope that I've done it justice.


What a difference a few weeks makes: From hot to cool as we wait for a delayed harvest

If you didn't know how beautiful a fog bank can be, you haven't spent a summer in Paso Robles.  Yesterday, I returned to the vineyard after a weekend in San Francisco to find that I'd somehow brought back the weather with me.  The daytime high was just 77°F. The night before dropped down to 43°F. And there was a big, beautiful fog bank sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Fog bank August 2018

Now this weather pattern isn't shocking for us, even in the middle of the summer. Although we get plenty of hot days, we normally see a pattern that builds in heat, tops out over 100°F for a few days, then breaks and we see cooler weather with days topping out in the upper 70s or lower 80s for a few days before it starts to build.

But it was shocking in that this summer, we hadn't seen the breaks hardly at all.  In fact, between July 5th and August 19th -- a stretch of six and a half weeks --  the lowest high temperature that we saw was 87°, and the lowest low temperature we saw was 53°. We had 22 days top 100°F. Our average high was 98.8° and our average low 57.6°. 

Happily, things have changed over the last ten days.  Every one of the days since August 20th would have been the lowest high and the lowest low in the previous 6-week stretch. We averaged a high of 83.3° and a low of 48.5°. And the long-term forecast calls for continued moderate weather.  The vineyard appears grateful for the respite; the vines look a lot less stressed to me than they did a couple of weeks back.

In some ways, this year reminds me of 2015, where we had alternating cold and hot months all the way from budbreak in April to the close of harvest in October.  Although the periods have lasted longer this year, we are seeing the same cold-hot-cold pattern.  I'm hoping that yields aren't as scarce as they were in 2015, when we were deep in the throes of our drought and also saw cold, windy weather during the May flowering period that reduced crop loads on our early grapes by as much as 70%, but it's certain that they'll be down from our 2017 levels.  How much is still to be determined.  But in character, the 2015s were outstanding, so if that's our baseline, I'm not unhappy.

Because we've largely avoided the temperatures where grapevines photosynthesize optimally (between 85°F and 95°F) we're still trending behind on our harvest. We're thinking it might begin slowly at the end of next week.  And we're OK with that.  In my trek around the vineyard, I tasted berries from Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Tannat, and Roussanne, and none of them were anywhere near ripe.  In fact, most were still only partway through veraison, a month after I wrote about it.  A few photos will demonstrate.  First, Tannat, where you can see the characteristic blue-black berries intermixed with pink and even green berries at the top of the cluster:

Tannat cluster August 2018

Next, Grenache Blanc. It's harder to see veraison in white grapes, but you can see some berries with a yellow tint, while others toward the center of the cluster are still more green:

Grenache Blanc cluster August 2018

And finally Roussanne, which is still resolutely green, not showing any of the characteristic russet coloring that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne cluster August 2018

It's worth recapitulating how much later we are than other recent years. Four of the last five years, we'd already started picking off our estate as of August 28th, and the fifth (2017) we were just two days from beginning and had already received some Viognier for the Patelin Blanc.  This year? Not so much. We've gone from weather that was too cool to ripen grapes fast to weather that was too hot to gapes ripen fast right back to cool weather, with virtually no transition either time.  We're out sampling all our Patelin vineyards, but nothing is imminent. The cellar team has been scrubbing equipment from top to bottom, and everything is sparkling clean. We've installed some new mini-foudres for our white program. The table is set... we're just waiting for the guests to arrive.

Clean cellar with new foudres August 2018