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 enriches the color 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:

IMG_7185 2

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.

IMG_7182
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.

IMG_7192 2

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. 

IMG_7169

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:

IMG_7184

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.

IMG_7207

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. 

IMG_7213

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: 

IMG_7219

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

IMG_7225

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.


A picture is worth 1000 words, late fall edition

With our tasting room closed again due to our Regional Stay Home Order, we've decided that it's more important than ever to share lots of photos to make sure that people can maintain a sense of what it's like out here. To that end, I was out yesterday walking around the vineyard to get some photos to share, and found it inescapable how dry it was. Often, by early December, we've gotten a couple of nice rainstorms, and the vineyard is already notably green. Not in 2020. It's been cold, which is good, because it forces the grapevines into dormancy, but we've only gotten a couple of small rainstorms, and nothing recently. I couldn't help but feel the stress of the grapevines I passed.

And yet, the annual cycle continues. I got one photo of a head-trained Mourvedre vine, roughly a decade old, that I thought was illustrative:

Head Trained Mourvedre Vine in Late Fall

Consider, if you will, the stresses that this and all our other vines have endured this year and endure, more or less, each year:

  • An almost total lack of topsoil. Our deepest topsoils are a couple of feet thick, and much of the property has the fractured calcareous shale you see right at the surface. 
  • Minimal rain for six months every summer and fall. Our total rainfall in the last 8 months is 0.8"⁠. That's a little extreme, but the average total May-October rainfall here at Tablas Creek over the last 25 years is just over two inches. Yes, our winters are wet. And yes, our soils do an amazing job retaining that winter rain. But this is a lot more extreme than anything grapevines have to deal with even in the driest parts of Europe.
  • Regular frosts in the winter. In the last month, it's dropped below freezing ten nights. That's not unusual; we average about 40 frost nights a year here, and though we've been lucky in recent years, spring freezes are the most significant annual weather threat we face. That too is more than Mediterranean regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape face.
  • Scorching summers. This summer, we had 21 days top 100. That was unusual; I wrote earlier this year how 2020 was the year where climate change felt real. But we average roughly a dozen 100+ days each year. And while the Mediterranean can get very hot, 90s are a lot more common than 100s there.

That Mourvedre vine has never had a drop of irrigation. There's not even any irrigation infrastructure in that block. And yet, each year it sprouts, flowers, ripens a crop, and stores what it needs for the next year. And out of this struggle comes grapes (and wines) of intensity and character. Deep roots that reflect the calcareous soils we love. Resilience and longevity.

It's not an easy life, but we wouldn't have it any other way.


Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes

What do regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have in common? They've all got soils that are variously described as chalky, decomposed limestone, and calcareous. In chemical terms, all are high in calcium carbonate, the basic building block of marine life.

So too does much of the Paso Robles AVA, particularly the sub-AVAs of the Adelaida District, Willow Creek District, Templeton Gap, El Pomar, and Santa Margarita Ranch. In all these regions, if you find a road cut, the rocks will be chalky and white, and if you dig into them you'll find marine fossils, from fish scales to oyster shells to whale bones. Yes, ten million years ago, our part of Paso Robles was under the Pacific Ocean. This makes our land, in geologic terms, relatively young. When they make their way to the surface, the rocks are creamy white and surprisingly lightweight:

Calcareous Soil on Scruffy Hill

What Are Calcareous Soils?
Calcareous soils are formed from the crushed up and decayed shells and bones of sea creatures. These layers settle down to the bottom of shallow oceans and, depending on how much heat and pressure they're subjected to, can be as soft as talc or chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Of course, in order for plants to be able to access the calcium carbonate, it needs to be friable: soft enough for roots to penetrate. This means that even when you hear about a region having "limestone soils" the value to the plants isn't in the limestone itself, but in areas where the limestone has decayed into smaller particles.

From a grapevine's perspective, it doesn't really matter if the calcareous soils come from the erosion of limestone (as in Burgundy) or whether they never quite got heated and compressed enough to become rock (as in Paso Robles). The net impact is the same. There are four principal reasons why these soils are so often good for wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.

Benefit 1: Water Retention & Drainage
Calcium-rich clay soils like those that we have here have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines. Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots. But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

The porosity of our soils mean that they act like a sponge, absorbing the rainfall that comes in the winter and spring months and holding it for the vines to access during the growing season. We've done backhoe cuts in late summer, after it hasn't rained for several months, and while the top few feet of soil are dry, there's moisture in the layers six feet down and more.

At the same time, we never see water pooling around the vines. Part of that is that our whole property is hilly. But hillside vineyards in other regions still end up with standing water at the bottoms of the hills. We never do. That balance of water retention and drainage is ideal, and it allows us to dry-farm in the summer months of what is essentially a desert climate. 

Benefit 2: Higher Acids at Harvest
We've had anecdotal evidence of calcium-rich soils producing wines with more freshness for years. At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted last decade, producers from non-calcareous regions (from Napa to the Sierra Foothills to vineyards in eastern Paso Robles with alluvial soils) consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us from calcareous regions like west Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. But the chemistry of why this was the case has only become clear in recent years. 

It appears that the key nutrient here is potassium, which is central to the processes by which grapevines lower acidity in berries as fruit ripens. High calcium levels displace potassium in the soils, inhibiting this chemical process and leaving more acidity at any given sugar level. Of course, this can be a challenge. I have friends in other parts of Paso Robles whose pH readings are so low at the sugar levels that we like to pick at (say, 22-24° Brix) that they have no choice but to wait for higher sugars. This can produce wines that carry massive levels of alcohol. But in moderation, it's a wonderful thing. I'm grateful that (unlike in many California regions) we can let malolactic fermentation proceed naturally, producing a creamy mouthfeel without unpleasantly high alcohol levels. In much of California, the higher harvest pH readings mean that they have no choice but to stop the malolactic bacteria from working to preserve the sharper malic acids in the finished wines, for balance. 

Tablas Creek - calcareous rock cut
The calcium-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer

Benefit 3: Root System and Vine Development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems. This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil. It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable. They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives. This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output. Calcareous clay's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces in which water can be stored. In addition, the softness of these soils means that as they dry out, they shrink, creating fissures through which roots penetrate to where more residual moisture can be found. As they get wet, they expand again, opening up yet more terrain for the vines' roots to access. This process repeats itself annually. In our vineyard we've routinely found grapevine roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

Benefit 4: Disease Resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries. Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion. However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

Where Are California's Calcareous Soils?
When my dad and the Perrin brothers were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of three main criteria they were looking to satisfy (the others were sun/heat/cooling and rainfall). But they quickly realized that soils like these are rare in California, except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The portion of this this area that is on the western slope of the coastal mountain ranges is too cold to ripen most Rhone varieties. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are home to the state's largest exposed calcareous layers, and it's largely because of this that in 1989 we bought property here.

There's a great story about how they went about finding soils. As they tell it, they decided that it was a lot cheaper and faster to look at road cuts than to hire backhoes and dig their own. They looked for the better part of four years around California without finding soils that excited them. Until they were driving along Peachy Canyon Road one afternoon in 1989, saw one of the many switchbacks where CalTrans had dug into the hillside to make the roadbed, and pulled over to see if the white rocks that they noticed were really what they'd been searching for. The composition looked right, the fossils looked right, and they then brought over a French geologist to confirm their impressions. They put in an offer on the property where we are now later that year.

We've thought since the beginning that finding calcareous soils would be a key to making great wines. Learning the science behind why only underscores the importance that the vineyard's founders put on this search.

Tablas Creek - Calcareous Rocks and Vines

Further Reading:
Thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at Cal Poly, for pointing me in the right direction on some of the trickier geology questions. See also:


Congratulations to Winemaker Neil Collins, Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year for 2019!

At the end of January, nearly 30 of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community to celebrate our long-time winemaker Neil Collins, who was voted by his peers the 2019 Paso Robles Wine Country Person of the Year. You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Tablas Creek Winemaker Neil Collins - Landscape

With one exception -- the 1997 vintage, during which Neil was working at Beaucastel -- Neil has had a hand in every vintage of Tablas Creek. We first met him in 1994, when he was Assistant Winemaker at Adelaida Cellars, where we rented space to make our first few vintages of practice wine. By the time we'd gotten our French clones into production and built our winery in 1997, we'd become so impressed with Neil's work that we offered him our winemaking position and the opportunity to spend a year working at Beaucastel. We're honored that he's been here ever since. 

Along the way, Neil created two other businesses here in the Paso Robles area, and this award recognized these contributions at least as much as his winemaking at Tablas Creek. He started the Lone Madrone label with his wife Marci and his sister Jackie in 1996, through which he has championed dry-farmed vineyards on Paso's West side while focusing on heritage grapes like Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc, along with (of course) Rhones and the occasional parcel that was too good to turn down. Nebbiolo, anyone? And as if that wasn't enough on his plate, for the last decade he's been leading a Central Coast cider renaissance through his Bristol's Cider label and the Bristol's Cider House in Atascadero.

When my dad and Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin started Tablas Creek, they felt pretty confident in their abilities to grow, make wine out of, and sell Rhone grape varieties. (As it turned out, that assumption was probably a little optimistic, but what great adventure ever gets started without a little unwarranted optimism... and anyway, that's a story for another day.) What they found in Neil, in addition to a man with relentless curiosity and legitimate hands-on winemaking chops, was someone who was steeped in Paso Robles. Although he's not a native, he spent his whole winemaking career here, from its early days with Ken Volk at Wild Horse through his extended stint with John Munch at Adelaida. I know that it meant a lot for him to have Ken, who gave him his first job in wine, be the one who presented his award at the Gala. I videoed the presentation speech:

You might well ask how he's able to run what is in essence three separate businesses while still holding down a full-time job here at Tablas Creek. That's part of what makes Neil special. He has a great ability to get things rolling, empower the people who work for him, and then keep tabs on the status of the many projects he's working on without having to (or, just as importantly, feeling like he has to) do everything himself. But it's not that he's content with the status quo. Far from it. His relentless experimentation is one of the things that has allowed Tablas Creek to grow and thrive the way it has under his watch. And it's one of the reasons why his lieutenants here at Tablas Creek tend to stay for the long term. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, who's been here more than a decade herself, to share her thoughts on Neil, and I loved what she told me: "One of the things I love most about working with Neil is watching him build community and having the chance to be part of it. You see it in his close-knit family for sure, but it extends well beyond that. His groups of friends and colleagues, the family he's built in the Tablas Creek cellar team, his employees from Lone Madrone and Bristols - it's a true delight to be near someone who cares deeply about the humans around him."

I think you'll get a good sense of why people want to work with and for Neil from his acceptance speech:

It's an honor to call Neil a colleague and a friend, and I couldn't be more excited that he received this recognition. 


An Interview with Wine Speak Co-Founders Chuck Furuya, MS and Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins

We are blessed in the Paso Robles area with a remarkable number of world-class wine events. In addition to the three annual events put on by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, we've been the home to Hospice du Rhone for two decades. WiVi has in the past five years become the state's second-largest trade show. And in the last three years, we've seen another amazing event come to our region. Wine Speak is a bit of a different take on a wine event, equal parts industry education and public showcase, celebration of the region and invitation to the world.

With the 2020 event just one week away, I had the chance to sit down with the event's two founders. Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins is VP of Operations at Ancient Peaks Winery, as well as co-founder of Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the success of women in the wine and spirits industry. She recently appeared on the cover of Wine Enthusiast's "40 Under 40" issue. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya was just the tenth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, in 1988. He is a partner in and wine director for D.K. Restaurant Group, is a former Chairman of Education for the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and writes a monthly wine column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser. 

Winespeak9

How did the two of you come to work together on this?

  • Amanda: In 2017 we were having a conversation about hospitality and the advancement of offering world class service.  Chuck is a big fan of Paso Robles (and many other places) so I asked if during one of his upcoming visits he could dedicate some time to sharing his wisdom with our local wine community.  Hawaii is after all a culture built on hospitality and tourism.  I would never imagine that this one small conversation could lead to so many incredible opportunities for our industry and community.
  • Chuck: From my point of view, I recall Amanda asking me to come to a talk/training on wines for a few people. I then asked can we do more? She said like what? I don't think she realized what she was getting herself into. From that came Wine Speak!

What was the genesis of the idea behind Wine Speak?

  • Amanda: The idea was and still is to elevate our entire wine community by collaborating and sharing.  There is great power in joining forces and teaching the next generation.  We want to see the industry grow and flourish and to create a stage for producers and personalities who have something tremendous to
  • Chuck: Since I had been working with Amanda on a couple of projects previously, I kind of along the way understood that she would be key to the unfolding of the Paso Appellation. She has an innate gift of charm and is very articulate and really good at problem solving. I also think she has a lot of integrity and is very honest. In Hawaii, if it was not 12 chefs on all the islands, Hawaii regional cuisine never would've happened in my opinion   Because it was 12 chefs, it created synergy, camaraderie…… It really was a movement. That is what changed Hawaii culinarily. I believe in each wine region of the world needs a band of like minded winemakers that can create change.  Take for example, the gang of four in Morgon, Beaujolais. So with that in mind, Amanda would be the foundation in Paso, and I would look to source and invite winemakers/professionals from various parts of the New World -- both inside & outside expertise -- looking to share, talk story and learn. This would also bring new faces to the Paso Robles wine region to experience the climate, the soils, the wines and most importantly the people. 

For you, what was the highlight of years 1 and 2?

  • Amanda: The highlight of year one was developing the confidence in our concept and seeing the profound need in our community.  Year two was magnificent, we partnered with a new non profit, Dream Big Darling, and offered scholarships to up and coming sommelier’s from around the country.  These young people have become ambassadors for not so many producers they met over the course of the experience.  Watching them light up and discover something new was magnificent.
  • Chuck: For me, year one -- it was seeing Justin Smith of Saxum hanging out for two or three days with Adam Tolmach of Ojai. Two different growing regions, two different generations and two different winemaking approaches getting to know each other, hanging out and talking story. I thought that was magic and it made me proud. For year two -- it was watching an assistant winemaker taste the 2015 Faury Condrieu and seeing that candid sense of wonderment on his face as he switched and switched the wine in his mouth. Seeing the lightbulb go on was something that really affected me.

What new things are in store for 2020?

  • Amanda: 2020 offers a more global perspective and we are excited to host producers from Spain, France and Argentina.  We also enriched our “Grand Tasting” event to include producers from around the globe.  We wanted to make sure that all events were dynamic for our local wine community.  Being from a rural area, many people drink wines they make. However, in order to really stretch and grow we need to expose ourselves to new concepts and ways of thinking.
  • Chuck: First of all, this is the first year that we will be including people from faraway places such as Spain, Argentina and France. It was previously New World-centric. We believe this will add new dimension to insights, the questions, and discussions. Secondly, rather than having panels of two or three all of the time on specifically three of the panels we look to do mano a mano -- specifically with three wine Yodas: Bruce Neyers, long time master Madeline Triffon, and Lionel Faury from Cote Rotie. These three may not be commonplace names which many are familiar with. But for me they are three of the most incredible wine minds I have run across in my 40+ years of doing wines. For example, Madeline was the sixth American to pass the master sommelier examination. She was the first American woman. She was the second woman in the world. I believe that is saying a lot and will hopefully inspire young professionals that attend, whether they are female or male. She is the consummate professional and rose to the top of her field despite all of the challenges. She doesn't typically do on stage interviews like this, but I think we all agree it is an important time for industry to have some of the long-timers with wisdom come and share their thoughts insights and experiences, so that we can all remember what the craft is.

What makes Wine Speak unique as a wine event?

  • Amanda: Wine Speak sets itself apart from other wine events in a number of ways.  For one, it's small, there is enormous access to speakers, panelists and guest interaction.  In addition there aren’t many other events that are engaging; winemakers, distributors, growers, and trade.  We bring several parts of the industry together for a time of learning, and not just about one segment of the business.
  • Chuck: Back in the 1970s, I remember tasting a wine from Cote Rotie and wondering how the heck can man and God create a wine that's beyond grapes, oak barrels or winemaking? And if that is true, why can't we do this in the New World? I believe that through sharing insights, wisdom and experiences we can make a difference. So for the first year we had two Syrah panels. One was entitled "New World Syrah" and featured Bruce Neyers, Andy Peay (Sonoma Coast), Serge Carlei from Australia and Greg Harrington MS from Washington state. And the other was entitled "Central Coast Syrah" featuring Justin Smith (Paso Robles), Matt Dees (Jonata, Ballard Canyon) & Adam Tolmach (Ojai, Santa Maria Valley). It offered quite a scope of what Syrah can be. Year two featured Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Pax Mahle of Pax/Windgap Wines and Jason Drew of Drew Wines (Mendocino Ridge). For 2020, we are taking a whole new approach to Syrah and featuring Lionel Faury from the Rhône Valley of France. So that is a eleven very different perspectives on what the Syrah grape variety can be from eleven very well respected winemakers and from very different places!

If there was one thing that you hope people get out of coming to the event, what would it be?

  • Amanda: New ideas and friendships.  In life, ideas and friends are the most valuable assets.
  • Chuck: A few years back, when I was inducted to the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, it made me think of all of the people who have touched my life to allowing me to be where I am today. In almost all of the cases, they showed me a box. Then they said, "Chuck, look inside the box". After that they then asked imagine the possibilities. That is what I'm hoping Wine Speak can offer. To make people think differently. How can we effect change. How can we nurture sharing, camaraderie and collaboration so that we can move forward and make a difference.

Do you have dreams for future Wine Speak events?

  • Amanda: It’s hard to think about that right now.  As long as there is a need we hope to continue to bring forth an event that helps move our industry forward.
  • Chuck: Right now, we are focused on getting this one up and running in the next two weeks. Every year, we typically wait a couple of months before deciding if we are going to do another. Having said that, of course I have already have some ideas.

Chuck, what was your “a ha” moment that got you excited about Paso Robles?

  • It was a 1988 Cabernet-based red I tasted in San Francisco at a tasting. To me the wine had much more than fruit. It had an underlying minerality that was captivating. I knew then that I had to go see the vineyard.

Amanda, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you as a result of being named to (or on the cover of) Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 40 under 40” list?

  • Being named as 40 under 40 and making the cover was really special to me.  It’s incredible that the publication noticed our collective work and choose to highlight it, I am forever grateful and humbled by my team and community which makes it all possible.  I’m blessed to be 4th generation in the Paso Robles region and cattle rancher, I’m glad to carry the spirit of our history with my rope and boots in the picture.

What’s your favorite under-the-radar fact about Paso Robles or the Central Coast?

  • Amanda: The spirit of rugged terrain, a story of the land and people that is still being written, and a community that stands together. 
  • Chuck: The soils AND the people/community!

Acacia_productions-wine_speak-2019-0665-2

Although many of the seminars are sold out, there are still tickets available to the Wines of the World Grand Tasting and some of the industry events. If you haven't checked out this event, you really owe it to yourself to do so. If you attend, I'll see you there, since I'll be speaking on one of the panels this year, as well as pouring wines at the Grand Tasting!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through October

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

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through November

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

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through December

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

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

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

Dark clouds over Tablas Creek Nov 2015


A Dry, Chilly Beginning to the 2019 Winter Season

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

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

Roussanne block October 2019

To today:

Roussanne Block November 2019

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

Weather Summary - October 31 2019

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

2019 Fall Foliage - Syrah

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

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

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

Late fall 2019 Mourvedre


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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrah mid-July

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

Viognier mid-July

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

Mourvedre mid-July

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

Grenache mid-July

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

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

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


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

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

Seating group on parking lot

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Food and Solar Panels

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Wines

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Egg Strata

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Photo Wall 3

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - JPP & Michel

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

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

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

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

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

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Vines

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