That Wine Enthusiast headline about $50 average tasting fees in Paso Robles is… just not true.

Last week, the Wine Enthusiast published a piece by Matt Kettmann celebrating the recent decision by Matt Trevisan to lower his base tasting fee at Linne Calodo Cellars from $40 to $20 in order to entice newer wine drinkers to experience his wines. I applaud Matt (Trevisan)'s decision, and think it's great that Matt (Kettmann) decided to write about it. In his intro, Matt (Kettmann) says "Tasting room fees have jumped to more than $50 per person at many wineries, even reaching $100 in some cases, triggering alarm amongst tourists and industry folk alike." While I'd quibble with his characterization of there being "many" wineries in Paso with $50+ tasting fees -- I'll share the actual numbers shortly -- that's a judgment call. But then the Wine Enthusiast made a much more inflammatory claim on social media. Do you notice it?

WE Twitter Paso Robles

The authors of articles don't generally write their headlines, let alone the copy that's used to promote the articles over social media. But saying that many fees are high is a far cry from saying that the average tasting fee is that high. And (spoiler alert) this second claim just wasn't true. This information isn't hard to find or verify. According to the 179 listings on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance winery guide, the most common tasting fees are between $20 and $29.99, with an average of $24.36. Eight wineries (4.5%) show tasting fees of $50 or more:

Tasting Fees in Paso Robles  by Number of Wineries

I became aware of the controversy through British wine writer Jamie Goode's Twitter post, which has as of this morning received 49 replies, 21 re-tweets, and 176 likes. I was sure it wasn't right, given what I see around town, and made a quick response, breaking a self-imposed Twitter hiatus to do so:

The reaction to the Wine Enthusiast's posts was predictable. There was a chorus of voices saying, essentially, "California wineries are all greedy and overpriced" while another chorus of people with connections to Paso Robles pointed out, with varying degrees of outrage, that this data didn't seem right. A few of the 49 comments to the Wine Enthusiast's Facebook post will give you a sense:

WE FB Paso Robles Comments
Finally, this morning, there was a correction posted to the Facebook post, adding "UPDATE: A previous version of this post indicated that average tasting room fees jumped to over $50 per person. This was misleading and has adjusted accordingly." No correction yet on Twitter that I can find. But to my mind, the damage has already been done. The original characterization became a lead story in the widely-distributed industry news roundup Wine Industry Insight and continues to echo around the wine ecosphere:

Wine Industry Insight Paso Robles Fees
To what extent does this color the general perception of a place like Paso Robles? It's not insignificant, I don't think. The Twitter post got something more than 34,000 views. Facebook doesn't make view counts public, but given Wine Enthusiast’s 417,000 fans and the number of comments, reactions, and shares their post got, it's probably even more. And then there's the reach of the emails, which mostly go out to people in the business and in a position to further influence consumer behavior. I suggested to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that they ask for a public retraction, but don't know if they will.

All this matters because it plays into a narrative that is convenient and ultimately destructive. The Lettie Teague article Who Can Afford Napa Now? Not This Wine Columnist in the Wall Street Journal last April -- to which I wrote a response on this blog -- is probably the highest-profile such piece. The temptation is to look at the most expensive options in a region and conclude that those are representative. But they are no more representative than the least expensive, such as the local example that Eberle Winery still doesn't charge a tasting fee. And wine is always susceptible to claims of elitism, given its historic association with aristocracy and the way it's often portrayed in popular culture. Perception drives customer behavior, and if people think that Paso Robles (or Napa) has gotten too expensive, they'll decide to go elsewhere. 

All this is why I think that what Matt Trevisan is doing is such a good thing. I wrote about the dilemma wineries face in my response to Lettie Teague's piece:

Do they raise their prices to keep up and risk losing their historic audience? Do they keep their prices and risk being seen as less elite than their neighbors? Or do they try to split the difference (as, if I read between the lines in the article, it seems that the lovely, historic Spottswoode Winery has done) and feel guilty about it? Unfortunately there's not a great solution once a critical mass of wineries has set dramatically higher prices for themselves.

But the same way that having a critical mass of wineries raising prices on visits puts pressure on their neighbors to do the same, having wineries publicly cutting those prices leaves room for other wineries to forge their own path. That's likely to keep visits to Paso Robles approachable, which should help set us up as an appealing destination whether you're a first-time visitor to wine country or a regular who makes several trips a year.

So, kudos to Matt. Go visit Linne Calodo. And thanks to all of you out there who stuck up for Paso Robles over the last few days.


The Benefits of Marketing Interns in the Wine Industry

By Ian Consoli

Over the past two summers, we have extended the opportunity for one individual to participate in a marketing internship at Tablas Creek. We contacted local universities, and posted on LinkedIn, Paso Wine Careers, and other job listing sites. The response to the listings was immediate and enthusiastic, as individuals looking to make their start in wine marketing found the post and applied. This September, our second marketing internship concluded, and for the second internship in a row, the accomplishments we made during the three months created a lasting impact on our marketing program. Two internships may be a small sample size, but it is enough for me to realize we are on to something.

One of the purposes of this blog is to share success stories, whether in sustainability, farming, recipes, wine marketing, or an array of other categories. With a general feeling of success, I thought we would share how and why we developed an internship program, its structure, and its results. My hope is for other wineries to feel inspired by our results and create a wine marketing internship program of their own.

Day in the life of a wine marketing internVideo: Day in the Life of a Wine Marketing Intern

The idea

Marketers ponder. (In fact, that pondering time is crucial for marketers to develop innovative ways to help brands develop, but that’s a piece for another time). In one of those ponderings, I thought back to my marketing internship in college and the value it brought me with the suffix, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could offer that opportunity to someone?” The answer was that we absolutely could. In fact, we might be one of the better-positioned wineries to offer one. We are large enough to employ a full-time marketing person (me) yet small enough that one marketing person is responsible for every aspect of the department. The idea made sense, but we needed to ensure the benefits outweighed the cost of bringing someone on board. We developed a program with three potential beneficiaries in mind:

Benefits to the candidate. The candidate would study and observe all parts of marketing throughout our organization. We employ one of the most intensive social media programs in the wine industry, with daily postings on three major platforms and weekly contributions on four more. What an opportunity for someone to learn every aspect of a professional marketer!

Benefits to the company. That intensive social media program requires many ideas and a lot of time. Social media is always changing, and the next generation fuels much of that change. We felt a current student or recent graduate would give us a Gen Z perspective, refresh our social media, and help us better understand social media’s current climate. If we repeat the program every summer, we will continue to refresh that understanding. After a month of shadowing, the candidate should be comfortable enough to contribute to our social media, email campaigns, website, public relations materials, and more. That alleviation of the marketer’s workload means more time for those pondering sessions.

Benefits to the industry. Summer internships are, by design, temporary positions. If we do not plan on employing the intern after three months of work, then what’s the point? Well, that temporary position could translate into a permanent position at another winery in the region. My personal philosophy is that the wine industry, at least locally, has a long way to go when it comes to understanding and respecting the value of employing a full-time marketer. I also believe that as more dedicated marketing professionals emerge, the better our marketing as a region will become. By power-training an enthusiastic candidate, we may help that candidate emerge as one of the top wine marketers and make significant contributions to the wine industry.

The Execution

For this internship to be well-rounded, we needed to look at every aspect of a marketing director’s duties, strip them down to their basic intent, and format a learning program that gets to the fundamentals of those duties. This practice is, within itself, a benefit to the marketing team and the company. Here’s a shortened description of the responsibilities we came up with:

  1. Social Media: Assist and implement daily social media posting and focus on developing a video strategy.
  2. Content Creation: Develop photography, videography, and copywriting skills (complete one piece for the Tablas Creek blog).
  3. Print Media: Assist with inserts for our wine club shipment and participate in printer negotiations.
  4. Public Relations: Write one press release and present it to local news outlets.
  5. Email: Observe, collaborate on, and take the lead on monthly email campaigns.
  6. Hospitality: Spend one day a week in the tasting room to connect front-of-house and back-of-house mentality.
  7. Events: Participate in one on-site and one off-site event.
  8. Major Project: Pick one significant project to complete over the course of the three-month internship.

We feel these responsibilities give our interns a taste of most of the daily tasks of a wine marketer while allowing them to focus on their primary skillset.

The Results

We hired two interns with entirely different skill sets. The first, Nadia Nouri, specialized in social media. She joined the team in the summer of 2022 when short-form videos started to gain recognition in the wine industry. That medium was a second language for her, one she spoke fluently. We developed multiple series and videos during her internship.

The understanding we developed inspired me to speak on short-form video at the DTC Wine Symposium in 2023. Our following grew by over 2,000 people, engagement was up, reach was up, and, more importantly, our content had a burst of life. That’s something a new perspective always brings. Here are a couple of my favorite posts from that time.

Shelby Burns was our most recent intern, and is a graphic design and communications specialist finishing her last quarter at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I can navigate the Adobe suite of design tools, but working side-by-side with a collegiately trained graphic designer helped simplify processes and improve our print media. Her big project was developing a single booklet combining three handouts into one. The booklet she created will minimize our printing, saving resources and money in the long run. My favorite piece from her project was a consumer-facing vineyard map that will help guests enter our vineyard in a fun and educational way. I mean, check it out!

2023 Tablas Creek Vineyard - MapKey takeaways

Not all interns are the same, and thank goodness they aren’t! Lean into the talent of your interns. In going from a social media specialist to a graphic designer, we realized both interns would benefit more if we focused on developing their specific skill sets while giving them a taste of all other aspects of the position.

Evaluating your processes is always a good thing. Nothing drives your expertise home like teaching. Developing this internship program forced us to take a good look into what we were doing, and helped us tighten up our marketing efforts. Also, sharing what you have learned always feels good.

You can always use a fresh perspective. It is rewarding when one of your key motivators becomes a key takeaway. We felt that adding a fresh perspective to our content room (my name for the marketing office) would help us grow, and we were right. More perspectives bring more understanding. We can’t wait for next summer’s marketing intern to add to what we’re doing at Tablas Creek.


Assessing the 11 Paso Robles sub-AVAs after their first decade

In September of 2013, the TTB published a notice of proposed rulemaking that gave a preliminary stamp of approval on the Paso Robles wine community's proposal to subdivide the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new sub-regions. I celebrated this milestone with an article on this blog where I laid out why I thought it was such an important development for our region. It's worth remembering that at the time there was some resistance to the proposal as being disproportionately complex given that up until that point everyone had used just the single overarching Paso Robles AVA. I tried to summarize why I thought it was important:

These new AVA's will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA's will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.

The proposal was ultimately approved in October of 2014, and we started using our own sub-AVA (the Adelaida District) on the labels of our estate wines with the 2014 vintage. Our Patelin de Tablas wines, which are sourced from several of the sub-AVAs, continued to use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA. Of course, there was no requirement that wineries use these sub-AVAs. From my conclusion of that 2013 blog:

Wineries who wish to continue to use only the Paso Robles AVA are welcome to. And many will likely choose to do so as the new AVA's build their reputation in the market. Not all the AVA's have a critical mass of established wineries, and it seems likely that a handful of the new AVA's will receive market recognition first, while the reputation of others will take time to build. But I believe that it will be several of the currently less-developed areas that will benefit most in the long term, through the ability to identify successful winemaking models and build an identity of their own. We shall see; having a newly recognized AVA is not a guarantee of market success, just a chance to make a name for yourself.

All this came back to me last week when I fielded a call from veteran writer Dan Berger, asking my thoughts on the success of the AVAs given that most of the big Cabernet producers he sees haven't been using them. To my mind, that's neither here nor there, since those producers are typically large enough that they're sourcing grapes from multiple sub-AVAs and therefore can only use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA anyway. And there are exceptions even to this, most notably Daou, which uses the Adelaida District AVA on all its estate wines. But it did make me wonder the extent to which the different AVAs were appearing on labels and therefore being presented to consumers as a point of distinction. 

The best way to measure this would be label approvals from the TTB, but I don't think there is a way to search their publicly available database by AVA. Origin, sure... you can search, for example, by California. But not by Adelaida District. But there are proxies available that can give a good indication: the major publications to whom wineries submit thousands of wines each year. So I dove into the review databases at Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and Vinous. Because each publication receives and reviews a different subset of the wines that are produced, I've included a summation of all three, with the number of reviews that a search for each sub-AVA produces for vintages since the new AVAs were announced. The total for the Paso Robles AVA (reviews that don't list a sub-district) is at the bottom:

Paso Robles Wines Reviewed, by AVA, 2013-2022 vintages
  Wine Enthusiast Wine Spectator Vinous Total % of Total
Adelaida District AVA 611 249 773 1633 16.8%
Willow Creek AVA 427 261 674 1362 14.0%
Templeton Gap AVA 154 26 115 295 3.0%
Santa Margarita Ranch AVA 49 33 38 120 1.2%
Geneseo District AVA 34 5 55 94 1.0%
El Pomar AVA 45 2 40 87 0.9%
Paso Robles Highlands AVA 44 9 27 80 0.8%
Estrella District AVA 28 2 49 79 0.8%
Creston District AVA 8 0 25 33 0.3%
San Miguel District AVA 5 0 14 19 0.2%
San Juan Creek AVA 0 0 0 0 0%
Paso Robles AVA 3531 709 1691 5931 60.9%

So, nearly 40% of all the wines reviewed by these publications carried one of the 11 new AVAs on their label. Is that surprising? I'm not sure, but I do think it's an encouraging sign that the producers here think that the AVAs are or will become meaningful in the marketplace. When you figure that many of the rest of the wines (like our Patelins) weren't eligible for one of the sub-AVAs, the clear implication is that most Paso Robles wineries are using the smaller, newer designations when they can. Even J. Lohr, whose founder Jerry Lohr was quoted in Dan's article as saying "We’re not selling our Cabernets based on the sub-appellations," has used the El Pomar AVA on at least three wines, the Adelaida District on at least three others, and the Estrella District on yet three more.

And yet, while all the new AVAs except San Juan Creek have appeared on labels, it's worth considering why more than three-quarters of the wines that use the sub-AVAs are coming from the Adelaida and Willow Creek districts. Some of that is the profile of the wineries who have settled in these two AVAs, which include many of Paso Robles' highest-end producers often making dozens of small vineyard-designated bottlings each year. Willow Creek wineries -- including Saxum, Denner, Epoch, Caliza, Paix Sur Terre, Thacher, and Torrin -- and Adelaida District wineries -- including Daou, Alta Colina, Adelaida Cellars, Law, Villa Creek, and Tablas Creek -- account for a much more significant percentage of the wines reviewed in these databases than they do the percentage of production within the broader Paso Robles AVA. The choice that these high-profile wineries have made to put their AVAs on their labels encourages their neighbors to do the same.

Will the other districts -- many of which have more planted vineyard acres than Adelaida and Willow Creek -- eventually catch up? I'm not sure. As long as much of that acreage is going into wines whose production is measured in the hundreds of thousands or millions of cases, and therefore being sourced from multiple sub-AVAs, maybe not. But I've always thought that some of the AVAs with the most to gain are ones like El Pomar and Creston whose cooler climates and higher limestone soil content makes them more akin viticulturally to the more prestigious regions to the west, but whose location on the east side of the river tends to get them lumped in with warmer, sandier regions like Geneseo and Estrella to their north.

Paso Robles AVA map - PRWCAPaso Robles AVA map from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website

Ultimately, time will tell whether more of the 11 Paso Robles AVAs join Willow Creek and the Adelaida District as something that people look for on their labels. Meanwhile I think it's healthy that Paso Robles as a region remains centered in people's awareness. Although in Dan's article Gary Eberle implies that the decision to advance a conjunctive labeling law -- which requires that Paso Robles be used on the label alongside whatever sub-AVA is used -- was a controversial one, I don't know any producer here who opposed it. It's a good thing that the recognition for Paso Robles continues to grow even as people start to understand what makes the different parts of the broader AVA unique. And promoting Paso Robles isn't incompatible with also building recognition for the diversity within it -- in fact, doing so will help consumers understand why the wines that they love have the character that they do, and give them guidance for how to further explore this region.

What it comes back to, for me, is that the science for subdividing the Paso Robles region is pretty conclusive. This morning's Paso Robles agricultural forecast, as an example, shows different weather stations within the region recording high temperatures yesterday ranging from 74.2°F to 92.9°F, low temperatures yesterday morning ranging from 42.9°F to 55.7°F, and heat accumulations for the growing season from 1533 growing degree days to 2510. Vineyards in Paso also vary by elevation (between 600 feet and 2400 feet), rainfall (between 7 and 30 inches annually) and soils (a dozen major soil types encompassing everything from high pH calcareous to low pH alluvial and loam).

The roughly 60 local vineyards and wineries who together commissioned and funded the Paso Robles AVA proposal -- which included both Gary Eberle and Jerry Lohr -- agreed, as a region, to bring scientists in from UC Davis and Cal Poly, and to defer to their findings as to where the lines should be drawn between the different AVAs. We knew at the time that this would likely mean that there would be AVAs drawn that didn't have a critical mass of wineries yet to help spearhead that sub-AVA's recognition. And we decided that this was OK. If the lines were drawn in the right places, over time, the AVAs that were capable of doing so would achieve recognition in the marketplace. Back in 2015, I laid out in a blog why the wisdom of this decision would only play out over time. A decade in, I think that we're well on our way.


Since when does Paso Robles get "May grey" and "June gloom"? Welcome to 2023.

If you live in California, you're not going to be surprised by this update. But it's been chilly so far this year. Sure, the winter made headlines, with record-breaking rains and cold temperatures. But even since then it hasn't exactly felt like sunny California. After a more-or-less normal April, we've gone back to a weather pattern in much of May and June that feels more like March -- or Mendocino -- than midsummer. Today we've had a heavy overcast as an unusual late-season low pressure system drifts over our area. This is not a sky that you expect to see in conjunction with this landscape:

Looking west June 5

It's not just the lack of sun. Since May 1st, temperatures here averaged nearly 7°F lower than normal, with only 12 days above seasonal highs and 22 below:

Daily High Temps 2023 vs Average

The cool pattern looks likely to persist through at least the middle of the month and perhaps longer, as it's the result of longer-term phenomena (static high pressure systems over the sub-arctic and low-pressure over the sub-tropics off the coast of California). For a more in-depth explanation, I recommend Daniel Swain's Weather West blog and Twitter feed:

The last six weeks or so have been characterized by a deep marine layer and on-shore flow, which has meant that even our warmer days have usually started out foggy. That's not unusual in the early spring here, but it's typically not the case even by early May. And having deep gray clouds over lush green grapevines in early June is even more unusual:

Terret Noir and Stormy Skies June 5

The net result has been that the growing season, which got off to a slow start before catching up a bit in mid-May, has fallen further behind again. We're now something like a couple of weeks behind average, and more like three or four weeks behind most recent years. For a good comparison, check out the blog I published June 3rd, 2022 about fruit set, with pea-size berries in Grenache. By contrast, Grenache is still in mid-flowering today:

Flowering June 5

Our biggest worry right now is that cool, breezy weather isn't ideal for berry fertilization, and raises the risk of shatter. But no one I talk to is particularly concerned. It hasn't been all that windy (the last month has had only one day with a top wind gust over 20mph), we've had warmer days interspersed between the chilly ones, and it hasn't rained. Even if we do get a passing shower tonight or tomorrow, it doesn't look like it will be much, or that it will stick around for long. Plus, everyone is seeing what we are: unusual vigor in the vineyards thanks to all our winter rain, with large clusters and plenty of leaf area. If we lose a small percentage of that crop, we can afford that better than we would have been able to the last few years.

Finally, there's plenty of runway left in the growing season. We've gotten used to starting to pick in August and finishing by mid-October. But in the 2000s it was more normal that we'd start in mid-September and finish in early November. In Paso Robles that's not a huge risk, since the rainy season doesn't usually start in earnest until around Thanksgiving. That's a big part of why we chose this location. So if we need to wait, we wait. There are even benefits to doing so, as the grapes will spend longer on the vines and we're more likely to be picking in cooler weather.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unusual backdrop to our vineyard activities. "May grey" and "June gloom" aren't normal features of Paso Robles weather. But it seems like in 2023 we're getting a taste of both.

Cinsaut and Stormy Skies June 5


The Adelaida District's Limestone Layers Laid Bare

On Friday, Winemaker Neil Collins poked his head into the office we share, looking excited, and said, "Hey, you got a minute?" I did, and we hopped into the ATV and Neil piloted us south across the creek and along the south side of the reservoir the property's previous owner made back in the 1950s. He stopped near the dam, and we headed out on foot. What he had found was remarkable: that Las Tablas Creek had become an exhibit for the local geology.

This has been a banner year for Las Tablas Creek. After three years where it barely ran, the series of storms that we got in late December and early January got it flowing fast:

A week later, after another storm had dumped six more inches of rain in about 24 hours, it burst its banks and flowed over Adelaida Road just outside the winery, producing impressive enough footage that it made it onto several national networks as an illustration of the widespread California flooding:

All that water flowing down the creek and into (and out of) the reservoir changed the landscape in in visible ways. In the creekbed it's clear how high the water came because everywhere below that line it scoured away the topsoil and exposed the limestone layers underneath:

Creekbed with Sadie

At the far end of the lake is a spillway through which the water flows once it has filled the reservoir. It's a remarkable illustration of the local geology. Most of the calcareous soils that underly the Adelaida District are soft, as much clay as rock, which has given rise to the (incorrect) theory that none of it is limestone1. While it's a good thing that we don't have solid limestone underneath us, as limestone is too hard for vines' roots to break up or break through, there are bands of limestone that run throughout the region. The previous owner made use of one of these layers in the creation of the spillway, which follows the slanting descent of the layer from dam-level down to the original creekbed. Here are two views: on the left from above the spillway in late January, and on the right from below last week:

Spillway from top Spillway from below

In both photos, though most clearly from below, you can see the many layers of softer rock that the water has eaten away over the years, while staying above the harder limestone layer. 

A side-stream that flowed into the creek showed another good example of the mix of harder and softer calcareous layers, and the step-like pattern that is repeated in creekbeds throughout the region:

Limestone and softer layers cross-section

While the softer layers crumble and decompose, the harder limestone bits stay in the topsoil. Most wineries remove them before planting anything, as otherwise they chew up tractors at an alarming rate. The rocks that are removed are the raw materials for the walls you see at Tablas Creek and around the Adelaida District:

Sadie camouflaged against stone wall

All this rock is sitting there year-round, just a few feet below the surface. Thanks to the rain we've received (and continue to receive) this winter it's easier to see than ever. 

Footnote:

  1. If you're interested into a deep-dive into the chemistry and geology of the calcareous soils out here, check out my 2020 blog Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes.

After two of our five rainiest months ever, we're ready for a break... but grateful for the moisture

I left California three weeks ago, just after Christmas, to spend some time in New England with family. At the time, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about how our winter was shaping up. We'd banked nearly 13" of rain and were at something like 170% of the rain we'd have expected at that point in the winter. The day I left, it started raining and essentially hasn't stopped. With the two-thirds of an inch that we got today, this makes 20 of the last 21 days we've seen measurable precipitation. The end-of-December rain pushed us to 13.28" for the month, making it our second-wettest December in the 25 years since we installed our weather station and a top-5 rainfall month overall.

Then came January. A series of atmospheric river storms paraded across the Pacific and slammed into California. Some were aimed farther north, but still dropped a couple of inches of rain. And one arrived on early in the morning of Monday, January 9th with its plume of moisture directed squarely at the Central Coast. We tallied 5.65" that day, including more than 4" in its peak between 1am and 10am. And when we arrived to see how things looked at the winery that morning, we realized that we couldn't even get there because Las Tablas Creek was flowing over Adelaida Road:

It wasn't until Wednesday that we could make it into our facility, and Thursday that we could reopen our tasting room. Thanks to some great work by our neighbors at Halter Ranch the debris blocking the culvert that was causing the creek to flow over the road was removed before the road was critically damaged. There was a section of Adelaida Road a few miles east of us that wasn't so lucky. And we had to close again this past Saturday because a new storm made access to the winery unsafe. Residents and businesses out here are still picking up the pieces, and what we're seeing is minor compared to the scale of damage around the state, with 19 deaths so far and floods forcing people from their homes from Sacramento to Santa Barbara.

Still, while we wish it had been spread out more, we're grateful to have received the rain. And when I got out in the vineyard today, it was stunning: lush and green from the saturated soils yet with minimal signs of erosion even on our steepest slopes:

After the rain - Counoise and cover crop

There wasn't really any standing water, even at the bottom of the hills, thanks to the remarkable ability our calcareous soils have to transport enormous quantities of water from the surface to deeper layers. That said, there was some water slowly trickling downhill in blocks like this head-trained Mourvedre at the northern edge of the property. It was wet enough that I nearly lost my boots getting this shot:

After the rain - water in head-trained Mourvedre

For all its beauty now, it's clear that things were pretty wild a week ago. You can see the deep cuts in the channels where valleys became rushing creeks (left) and the impact of 36 hours of water flowing over Adelaida Road (right):

After the rain - water flowing from Halter Ranch

After the rain - erosion on Adelaida Road

With nearly half the month still to come, January 2023 is already our third-wettest month in our history, trailing only January 2017 and (from before I started writing this blog) February 1998. We're at 281% of expected rainfall for this point in the winter and above our full-winter long-term average. After three years of drought, that's a huge relief.

Rainfall by month through January 2023

You can see from the rainfall distribution above why this season is so critical for us. We get three-quarters of our annual rainfall between December and March. If we have an extended winter dry stretch, it's almost impossible to make it up later. And drought impacts are cumulative. Grapevines generally do fine the first year of a drought cycle, thanks to their accumulated vigor. But starting the second year, you see the reduction in yields, and by the third year you start to see impacts on vine health and mortality. That's played out for us the last three years. 2020 saw roughly average yields. But 2021 saw yields off by 26% and 2022 saw them decline another 8%. A quick look at our available wines shows many more sold-out than for sale. And that's before we've even gotten to the 2022 vintage, from which there will be several wines we just won't be able to make. So getting rain this winter was particularly important.

Vineyards themselves are typically resilient in the face of extreme rainfall events. Those events typically come in winter, when the vines are dormant, and grapevines' deep roots play an important role in helping hold soil in place. Vineyards that are regeneratively farmed tend to do even better. Both no-till farming and planted cover crops (one or the other is required for regenerative certifications) keep surface erosion to a minimum. The focus on building up the organic matter in your soils helps them hold more moisture. And the biodiversity in regenerative farming systems tends to create a denser web of life than monocultures. Witness this section in the middle of the vineyard, which a decade ago was one of our most erosion-prone areas but which we planted to a mix of perennial crops that would act as attractors for beneficial insects. The combination of shrubs and deep grass, already well-established because it hasn't been tilled in years, made for one of the least-soggy sections of the vineyard:

After the rain - Biodynamic plantings

Looking forward, we're supposed to get a few more showery days and then a solid week at least of sun. That will be welcome for everyone, from vineyard to residents to businesses. It should give the county a chance to get out and repair the damaged roads. It should shift the cover crop into overdrive, and make for some very happy sheep. It will give the soils a chance to transfer the water to deeper layers and free up space at the surface for the next storm. It might even give us a chance to get started on our pruning, which we've been unable to do because pruning in wet weather encourages the spread of fungal diseases. But as happy as we are with what we've received, we're hoping this isn't the end of the rain. The local reservoirs still have significant room; while Lake Nacimiento is at 87% capacity, Lake San Antonio is only at 32%. At Tablas Creek we're chipping away at an accumulated rainfall deficit of 28" from the last three years of drought. Plus there would be benefits during the growing season, as soils with high moisture content stay cool longer in the spring and delay budbreak, which would reduce our risk of frost damage. And on a purely aesthetic level, there's a particular character to the green here after winter rain that I love. Who wouldn't want more of this?

After the rain - New Hill and Jewel Ridge

If you were negatively impacted by these storms, please know you have our deepest sympathy. It's been a rough couple of weeks for California. But if you were worried that the vineyards here would be suffering, hopefully we can at least put that to rest. We have high hopes for the 2023 vintage.  


A Vineyard Life: When It Rains in the Adelaide

By Austin Collins

There is no doubt that winter is upon us. This past week alone we have received over five inches of rain. That's more than our long-term average for the month, and half of what we got in one of our wettest-ever Decembers last year. And there is more on the way. We even got a brief, but incredibly strong hail storm, littering the ground with marble-sized pellets. In fact, it was my one-year-old's first time seeing hail. One of many firsts under the skies of Tablas Creek Vineyard, just like his father. It is days and weeks like this that allow us to loosen our shoulders and enjoy our holidays just a little bit more. These past few years of drought have taken a severe toll on us, and are a big reason why, along with the unseasonably late frosts of 2022, our crop yields have been unprecedentedly low. So, the next time you are having dinner and rain is tapping on your window, open a good bottle of wine and give a nod to the clouds.

Austin - View toward Las Tablas Creek

With the recent rainfall we received I was taken back to my early years on the Tablas Creek property. This is the view off of my back patio. Down the steps and into the bed of Las Tablas Creek, the access point to many of my childhood adventures. During the rainy season this creek would begin to flow again, and with the return of water came life. I have strong memories of hearing the creek rushing through the darkness of the Adelaide nights, the sound of toads reverberating off of the ancient oaks. Back then there wasn't much traffic on the roads and the sounds of the land were accompanied by only silence.

Austin - Rain over misty vineyard

As I child my favorite thing to do was explore this property. Sure, I played some sports, but I remember being at my happiest romping through this wild and dirty playground. The great thing about having the vineyard and forest as your playground is the changes it experiences throughout the year. In summer it's warm, dry, and full of sun-drenched grasses until late in the evening. In the winter my playground would transform. The cold would encourage leaves to cover the forest floors, the vines became bare, hardly resembling their summertime guise. Small cover crops sprouted and annual grasses began to peek through the darkened soil.

Austin - View over dormant vines

When it rains at Tablas Creek, vineyard work comes to a standstill. Tractors are parked under cover and sheep rest on blankets of straw in the barn. That meant I had the hills to myself, a child of the mud.

Austin - Olive trees and rock wall

Good, wet storms do not hit us too often here in Paso Robles. That being said I feel as though people can still take them for granted when they do come. In fact, it confused me as a young child when people deemed the weather miserable when water fell from the sky. "Bring it on", I always thought. I think our dry farmed vines and olive trees agreed with me.

Austin - Sun emerging

The rain sure meant a lot to me back then. It still does. How can it not? Look how much it does for us. If you don't grow crops for food or for wine, I think everyone can appreciate the beauty rain brings to the planet. Whether it is during a storm, or after, through the clearest air our lens can find, rain did that.

[Editor's note: after this piece was published, our Winemaker Neil Collins, Austin's dad, sent us this photo of Austin playing in one of these very same puddles. As he said, "proof".]

Austin playing in the mud


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful, Fall Edition

Three weeks ago, with the first clouds in the sky and the vineyard starting to change into its autumn colors, I caught some of this new beauty and shared it in a blog. Since then, we've gotten three inches of rain, without a frost. The result has been a new color palette, with green grass growing while the autumn colors deepen to auburn. Because we usually get a hard freeze before we get significant rain, it's rare and beautiful to have this green and golden brown combination:

Newly green vineyard

But that's not the only change. The moisture has meant that we've had a series of lovely foggy mornings out here, water dripping off the vines and settling on the new grass, sunlight softly diffused:

Fog lifting over new planting

I keep coming back to the spot from which I took the final photo in my last session, at the center of the vineyard looking west over a section of head-trained Mourvedre, one of my favorite rock walls, a new area of Biodynamic plantings, and a big oak tree. I particularly love the lines of hills receding toward the horizon:

Sunset over the center of the vineyard

The colors of the vines vary, but Counoise is always some of the most colorful. I love the contrast with the big old live oak that grows in the middle of this block:

Counoise and oak tree in the setting sun

One of the things we've done since we finished harvesting our grapes was complete our one-day olive harvest. I didn't get any photos of that, but the grey-green of the olive leaves makes a great contrast to the brighter colors of the vineyard (in this case, Tannat on the right):

Sunset through olive trees

I'll leave you with one more sunset photo, the late-afternoon light illuminating Syrah's fall colors. 

Sunset over Syrah

How long we'll have with this landscape is an open question. We have more rain forecast for next Tuesday, which will be great. There's a chance of a frost the night before, which would put an end to much of this color, but if we dodge it there's not another one on in the forecast. Could we keep these colors all the way to Thanksgiving? I don't know. But I'm going to enjoy them while they're here. If you're visiting Paso Robles in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.    


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now, Fall Edition

The seasons are definitely changing, and earlier this year than our last few. It's been cool and breezy during the day. Nights have already dropped near freezing several times. The grapevines have been coloring up like they think they're in New England. And (wonder of wonders) we have clouds:

View between Mourvedre and olive trees

Combine the clouds, the vineyard colors, the lower sun angles, and a touch of humidity in the air, and you have a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west over our oldest Grenache vines into the setting sun:

Looking west through oldest Grenache block

Most people think of wine country in summer, when you've got a high-contrast color palette. Bright blue sky. Dark green oaks. Golden hillsides. Winter and spring are their own kind of beautiful, softer and more yellow-green as the season's rainfall covers hillsides with green grasses and wildflowers. I've shared how much I love getting out into the vineyard to photograph those seasons. Fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you aren't paying attention. All you need is one frost, which usually comes in November sometime, and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But for those few weeks it's glorious:

Long view looking south over Grenache

It's not just the vineyard. The low sun angles enrich the colors of the grasses, as you can see from this shot of a picnic table we've put at the top of our tallest hill:

Picnic table at the top of the hill

Panning back a little more allows the oak trees (beautiful in any season) to be contrasted against the sky, layered gold and robin's egg blue from the clouds and the setting sun:

Looking west through oak tree

One last photo, my favorite of the session, and one of my favorites I've ever taken out at the vineyard. You're more or less in the center of the vineyard, looking west past many of our Biodynamic plantings of flowering herbs and fruit trees, vines to the left turning color while the lines of hills march toward the horizon:

Center of the vineyard with clouds

We may only have another week or so of this landscape. Our first winter storm is forecast for this coming weekend, and if we get any significant wind with the rain, the leaves will likely come off the vines. The rain will begin the vineyard's next transformation from gold back to green. And we'll all celebrate the end of fire season. But if you have the good fortune to be here over the next week, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home. 


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

I took a walk yesterday across Las Tablas Creek and up the section of our property that we're calling Jewel Ridge, named after a great old vineyard dog who we buried there. This is the parcel that we bought a decade ago, knowing that we wouldn't need it for five years at least, because land this good, contiguous with our property, doesn't come on the market according to your schedule. So, we bought it, and have spent the last decade building up the soils, using it as a convenient staging zone for our flock when they can't be in the vineyard, and slowly mapping out the new blocks. A quick panoramic from the top, looking west, will give you an overview:

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You can see how green things are getting after the foot of rain we received in late January. This view, looking under one of the walnut trees that we kept (the whole property was a dry-farmed walnut orchard when we bought it) shows it even more clearly. The stakes you see are for us to plant later this winter.

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The ridgetop has spectacular views on three sides, and also looks to us like some of the best vineyard land in the area. We've already planted some Mourvedre and Grenache. The whole property will be head-trained and dry-farmed, following the model that we've loved so much on our Scruffy Hill parcel.

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Almost the entire property is steep, with slopes as much as 30%. That's a bit of a challenge for farming, but nothing we haven't figured out already. This view of the east-facing slope of Jewel Ridge is representative. 

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The highlight of the property is a west-facing natural amphitheater. I took the panoramic photo I shared first looking straight west over that bowl, but because of the panoramic distortion it's hard to see the land's curves. This shot of Sadie halfway down the slope maybe shows it more clearly:

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Another perspective, looking south across the top of the bowl, gives you a different slice. You can see some of the vines we planted last year, tied to the stakes in the middle ground. We hope to get our first small crop off this parcel in 2023.

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As I was walking back, I caught this photo of the moon rising over the west slope of Jewel Ridge. The colors at this time of year (deep blue sky, occasional puffy white clouds, cream-colored rocks, dark brown vines, and bright yellow-green cover crop) is my favorite. 

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One of the appeals of the property to us was the lake that the previous owner's father created in the 1950s by damming up Las Tablas Creek. In the long term, we're exploring how we might use this water to frost protect more of the property. In the short term, it's a lovely spot, with ducks swimming on the surface: 

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Finally, maybe my favorite shot of the day, looking up from the creekbed toward our established vineyard, Sadie posing pastorally:

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We're excited that we've been able to start welcoming guests back to our tasting patio in the last month. If you're planning a trip to Paso Robles in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.