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


Rethinking the Role of Wine Festivals in the Age of Yelp and Instagram

Last month, we participated in the Paso Robles Wine Festival, as we do every year. This year was particularly nice, with gorgeous weather and a great vibe at both Friday evening's Reserve Event and Saturday afternoon's Grand Tasting in the downtown park. If you came to see us over the weekend, thanks. We hope you had a great time. We sure did.

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

Every year, we debate how much to invest in activities at the winery. This year, we decided to go (relatively) big.  On Sunday, we brought in Chef Jeff Scott and he made gyros from lamb we raised on the property. We also had Chris Beland come in and play music. Our patio was full much of Sunday, and everyone had a great time. All that said, our traffic was modest on Sunday (124 people) which continued a 5-year trend of downward Sunday traffic. It's been declining about 10% a year for a while now. And even our Saturday traffic (209, up a bit from last year) wasn't really an increase over a normal May week.

Friday, on the other hand, was our busiest in recent years, with 105 people. But overall, our weekend traffic (438) was right about at our average for the last 5 years, only slightly busier than a normal May weekend, and actually less busy than Wine Festival Weekend was in the mid-2000's.  Years ago, the Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend was a major source of revenue for the member wineries.  You poured wine in the park on Saturday.  On Sunday, you opened your gates (often to a line of cars) on Sunday morning and saw as many people that one day as you might in a low-season month. So, given the potential payoff, wineries pulled out all the stops in trying to get a high percentage of the park attendees out to the wineries, with food, music, seminars, and special open houses.  Given that it's now not that different from any other weekend, does it makes sense to do the same?  It's not like the decision to provide food and music were free.

We think yes, for two reasons. First, our success with the customers we saw was great. We had our highest weekend sales in the last 5 years, and our second-best number of wine club signups. That's a win. But given that most of those came Friday and Saturday, I'm not sure how much to attribute to our events.  Second (and to my mind, more importantly), what we were doing was investing in the long-term success of the Paso Robles wine region. A regional wine event without the enthusiastic participation of its wineries isn't really that special to the people who attend.

Years of post-event surveys have told us that roughly 50% of the attendees of the Paso Robles Wine Festival are making their first visit to Paso Robles Wine Country. I feel like our most important job is making them fall in love with the place, so they return.  Whether we sell them much wine this time around or not, festivals are part of the marketing of our region, and that investment is a long-term play. We should both pour cool wines in the park and do our part to make sure that attendees have a great selection of things to do the next day. After all, the festival in the park only happens one weekend a year, and is put on in the hope that the attendees will then return, spend multiple days visiting wineries, and make visits here a recurring part of their lives.

I think that longer perspective can get lost if you look just at the post-event traffic numbers. The growing numbers of people who visit Friday and Saturday are likely at least in part the result of good work at past festivals, where attendees fell in love with Paso Robles wine country.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has done a great job, I think, in making the event more full-fledged in recent years, incorporating the many great restaurants of Paso Robles more and more, adding a reserve tasting, great seminars, etc.

I don't think that the higher average spend per customer we've seen in our tasting room on Wine Fest weekend (double what it was in 2011, triple what we saw in the mid-2000's) is a coincidence. And, more importantly, neither is the growth of our non-festival weekends. In 2003 (the earliest year for which I have good data) we sold about $9,000 in wine on the Sunday of Wine Festival to about 300 guests, part of a $12,500 week that was nearly double our $6,900 average non-festival sales week that year.  This year, on Wine Festival Sunday we also sold about $9,000 in wine. But it was to 124 visitors, and part of a $41,000 tasting room week that was only 13% better than our average week this year ($36,000).

And consumer trends only reinforce how important it is getting new people into the pipeline of your region or your brand.  A study published by Eventbrite showed that the majority of attendees of food and wine festivals are sharing photos of the event on social media. Peer to peer recommendations are the most trusted form of advocacy.  And a positive experience that is echoed on an online review site like Yelp has positive impacts on not only future customers' buying decisions, but on things as apparently removed as your search engine rankings.

So, for us, it's an easy decision. We will keep investing in the success of our community, and trust that these seeds we plant will sprout in the form of return visits and sales. And we're grateful we're a part of a community in Paso Robles where we're just one of many wineries who've made the same choice.


Assessing Winter 2017-2018 After March's Rainfall "Miracle"

At the end of February, we were looking at a potentially disastrous winter, with less than five inches of precipitation.  A major storm that arrived March 1st and dropped more than three inches of rain in 24 hours marked a major pattern shift, and the rest of March continued wet, finishing with nearly 12 inches of rain, our wettest March since we put in our weather station in 1996 and the sixth-wettest month in that time frame.  Although April was dry, we're in a much better place than it looked like we'd be.  For a visual sense of how the winter has shaped up compared to normal, I've put together a graph by month:

Rainfall Graph Winter 2017-18

You can see what an outlier March is, at 295% of normal.  Still, following six drier-than-n0rmal winter months, we will end this winter season at something like 70% of average, a total much more like what we saw during our 2012-2016 drought than the gloriously wet 2016-2017 winter:

Rainfall by Winter 1996-2018

Still, while it was a below-average rainfall winter, it's neither particularly troubling nor particularly unusual. It ranks 13th of the 22 winters since 1996. And it follows our very wet winter last year, which produced healthy vines and replenished our underground water sources. Historically, the first dry year after a wet stretch hasn't been particularly hard on the vineyard, thanks to the accumulated vigor and residual moisture, and has in fact produced some fabulous vintages like 1999, 2002, 2007, and 2012. 

It's also important to realize that the fact that the rain came late will have an impact on the growing season.  It's unusually green right now for mid-May, and that soil moisture is relatively plentiful close to the surface, easily accessible even to relatively young grapevines.  A few shots should give you a sense of what things look like. First, one from mid-April, before the Mourvedre vines in this low-lying area had sprouted:

Cover crop

Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:

New Growth in Grenache

Because the rain came so late and we wanted to give the cover crops as much time as possible to build organic matter, we're behind in getting them tilled under. The vineyard at my parents' house is a good example; the cover crops are nearly as high as the cordons:

Haas Vineyard Cover Crop

The other implication of the late beginning of cover crop growth is that we weren't able to have the animals in the vineyard as much as we would have liked this winter, because there just wasn't enough for them to eat until the beginning of March. But we're planning to harvest the cover crops in sections of the vineyard where we weren't able to have them graze, to supplement their forage from unplanted portions of the property.

The late rain and the consistent sun in April has made for a spectacular wildflower season.  The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket nearly covering the head-trained Grenache vines:

Mustard and Head trained Grenache

And, of course, the California poppies are the stars of the show.  Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles this month is in for some spectacular scenery:

California Poppies

Big picture: we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things.  We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, and in a concentrated enough period to have positively impacted our well levels. Budbreak was later than in recent years, and we're now largely through the frost season, with only one frost event (the morning of April 17th), which doesn't look like it did too much damage. The vineyard looks healthy.

Given where we were in mid-February, I don't think we could have asked for anything more.


Spring in the Vineyard: A Burst of Growth and a Wildflower Explosion

It's been a while since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard. So, let's remedy that.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles.  The hillsides are green.  The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day.  Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've had relatively stress-free nights and (other than a little testing) haven't even had to turn on our frost-protection systems.  That's particularly nice because this week, both our winemaker and our vineyard manager are out representing the winery at Taste of Vail.  Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card.  The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:

Poppies and animals

Low to the ground, particularly in valley areas and those blocks where the sheep came through earlier in the winter and ate the taller grasses, you can find a carpet of tiny purple flowers covering the ground:

Purple wildflowers

On hillsides, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Mustard in the vine rows

Not all the growth is colorful. The green of our cover crop mix (oats, sweet peas, vetch, and clovers) combines with wild grasses to approach the height of the cordons where we haven't been able to get the sheep in to eat it down:

Cover crop

With bud break, we're approaching the end of the season where we can have our animal flock in the vineyard safely. We've moved them to the late-sprouting Mourvedre and Counoise blocks, including one easily visible from the winery itself.  I love this photo, which shows the hillside with the sheep, the extent of the green growth, and the winery, complete with solar array, all in one shot:

Winery  animals and solar panels

The rain we got last month meant that (briefly, at least) Las Tablas Creek was running, and it filled up the lake on the new parcel we bought in 2011. We still haven't done anything about using that water to help frost-protect the vineyard, but seeing the lake full for the second consecutive year has rekindled our thinking about how we might:

Lake Ramage

But, of course, it's the vines that are the main event at this time of year. And the splashes of vibrant yellow-green are the most hopeful sign of all. While some varieties (like the aforementioned Mourvedre and Counoise, as well as Roussanne, Tannat, and Picpoul) are yet to sprout, early grapes like Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) are already well out of dormancy:

New growth - Grenache Blanc

This explosion of spring color won't last long.  Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and we'll turn to getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.


A Late-March 2018 Bud Break Marks a Return to a "Normal" Spring

Two months ago, I was worried. January, normally our coldest month of the year, had seen only four nights drop below freezing. After one decent storm on January 8th and 9th, the rest of the month was dry, leaving us at just 20% of normal rainfall by month-end.  We ended the month with a week of sunny days, each topping out in the mid-70s.  The beginning of February was more of the same: ten days of sun in a row, each topping out between 75 and 81, with lows dropping down only into the 40s.  I was worried we'd see our vines start to sprout in February, setting the growing season off to an unprecedentedly early start and leaving us an unconscionably long period of frost risk.

Thankfully, mid-February brought a change in the weather pattern. Although the second half of the month remained dry (the 0.28" of rain is just 6% of what we'd expect from our second-wettest month) it got cold. We finished February with ten straight frosty nights, all but one dropping into the 20s. Only one of those days made it out of the 50s. And then, in March, it began to rain. We've seen fifteen days this month with measurable precipitation, totaling 11.94" for the month and bringing us to 16.54" for the winter, roughly 75% of what we would expect on this date. The vineyard has transformed, green cover crop springing from the ground as though it was making up for lost time. Now that we've passed the spring equinox and are in the middle of a week of sunny, increasingly warm weather, it's not surprising that I saw the first signs of bud break when I got out into the vineyard yesterday. Our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg provided photographic evidence with a photo of a sprouting Viognier vine this morning:

Budbreak 2018 Viognier

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.  And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Grenache and Syrah, then later Marsanne and Picpoul, and finally, often a month after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. Even Grenache, typically on the early side, was fully dormant everywhere except the very tops of the hills:

Grenache still dormant late March 2018

While this year is two weeks later than last year's budbreak, and a month later than our record-early 2016, it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically:

2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

The timing of our cold and our rain was pretty much ideal. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) pay the most attention to soil temperatures in deciding when to come out of dormancy. And wet soils retain cold better than warm soils. The double dose we received of cold and wet meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk.  And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the end of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage.  And the current long-term forecast calls for the high pressure system that has dominated our area this week, bringing sun and increasingly warm days, to persist for a while.

That's just fine with us. Now that the first vines have begun to sprout, we'll see the scene in the vineyard change rapidly. Please join me in welcoming the 2018 vintage.