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

It's been a month or so since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard, and this is a time of year when things change fast. So, let's dive in.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles. The hillsides are green. The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day. Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've been OK. This weekend might be a different story, but we've done what we can to be prepared. Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

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

Wildflowers 2022 - Poppies

Low to the ground, the cover crop's most colorful component is purple vetch. These provide a carpet underneath taller elements, but in shady areas are impressive all on their own:

Wildflowers 2022 - Vetch

In areas where the sheep haven't grazed, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mustard

But the most impressive wildflower arrays are the lupines. These purple clusters can cover the ground, swaying rhythmically and producing an intoxicating scent. They're unmissable on the sides of the roads out in the Adelaida District this year:

Wildflowers 2022 - Lupine

I've been showing you lots of non-vineyard areas because that's what's most colorful, but the vineyards boast an impressive carpet of greenery, studded with purple, white, and yellow flowers from the vetch, radishes, mustard and sweet peas mixed in with the grasses and clovers:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mixed Cover Crop

But, of course, it's the vines that we care most about this time of year. The splashes of vibrant yellow-green from the new growth of our early-sprouting varieties (like Viognier, below) provide a contrast in texture more than color against the gold-green grasses, particularly in the morning sun:

Wildflowers 2022 - Viognier

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

Wildflowers 2022 - Riot


Budbreak 2022: Early, Despite Our Chilly Winter (Blame the Lack of Rain)

This winter's precipitation has fizzled after a wonderfully wet December. Although we've still got a few chances for more rain (including later this week) there's nothing substantial on the horizon, and March is the last month when we'd expect significant rainfall. So, we're resigning ourselves to another drought year. As you'd probably expect, that is likely to have an impact on our yields. What you might not expect is that it also impacts when the growing season starts. But it does. Because rising soil temperatures are one of the main signals that grapevines use to come out of dormancy in the spring, and because dry soils warm up faster than wet soils, we've been on the lookout for our warmer spots -- and our earlier-sprouting varieties -- to start their growing season. So this is no big surprise:

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache

So far, we've only seen leaves on three varieties (Grenache, above, plus Grenache Blanc and Viognier) and even in those blocks, it's rare. Viognier, for example, has lots of swollen buds but only a few tiny leaves visible, even at the top of the block:

Budbreak 2022 - Viognier

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre.

Budbreak 2022 is happening a bit early, historically, a couple of weeks earlier than average. That said, we're still two weeks after our earliest-ever budbreak in 2016. Here's when we first recorded significant budbreak the last decade:

2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. Well more than 90% of the vineyard is still dormant. This Grenache bud, from halfway up the block from which the first photo was taken, looks just like it would have in January:

Budbreak 2022 - Dormant Grenache

As I noted in the introduction, budbreak happens when it does largely due to increases in soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are waiting for the annual signals that it's safe to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. The colder the temperatures and the more water in the soils, the longer the vines stay dormant. As winter rains ease, days lengthen, and the sun becomes more intense, those soils start to warm up, and the vines begin a race to reproduce. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing risks and benefits. Emerge too early, and they risk suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost. Too late, and they might not have enough time to ripen their fruit, which is necessary so that animals eat it and distribute the seeds.

Now our biggest worry becomes frost. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. We've had 35 days this winter where the weather station in our vineyard measured below freezing temperatures, a more or less normal number for us. But once the vines sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got nearly two months to go before we can relax. We'll be up a lot at night, turning on frost fans and microsprinklers to help protect the new growth as best we can. Because all our low-lying areas are still dormant, and we choose later-sprouting grapes to go in those lower, more frost-prone vineyard blocks, we're still likely OK if we get a moderate frost in the next week or two. But by the end of March we'll be beyond that.  

Meanwhile, we're trying to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, we've moved them to late-sprouting blocks like this Mourvedre section at the south end of the property. With the early start to this year's cover crop growth, this was their third pass here, which is great:

Budbreak 2022 - Sheep in Mourvedre

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. That said, after six solid weeks of high pressure between mid-January and late February, the weather pattern we're in now is more mixed. There's no big rain on the horizon, but there are some smaller storms. It's generally in the aftermath of the passage of a cold front that we worry about a hard freeze. So rain now comes as a mixed blessing. Fingers crossed, please. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. With March 2020 marking the beginning of lockdowns for most of the country and March 2021 marking the start of a transitional year, as vaccines got into circulation and people started emerging cautiously into mixed company again, this March feels less fraught. We just hosted our first educational seminar here in more than two years. I poured at the Rhone Rangers tasting, my first big indoor event in exactly two years. We have a full slate of tastings and wine dinners planned this spring.

And now the vines are joining the party. Let's hope their (and our) journey out into the world is a smooth one.

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache Blanc


A Picture Worth 1,000 Words, Mid-Winter Edition

We're in week three of sunny January after our rainiest December in nearly two decades, and the vineyard looks amazing. This is peak green for Paso Robles, almost shocking if you're used to it in its summer colors. I've been taking advantage of the sun to get out and take lots of pictures of how things look, and while experimenting with using the panoramic mode on my iPhone vertically, ended up capturing a photo that I feel like tells big chunks of the story of Tablas Creek in one shot. I'll share the photo first, and then break down the story that I see when I look at this picture, starting at the bottom and working my way up to the horizon.  

Winter on Crosshairs
Miner's Lettuce at Ground Level
At the bottom of the photo you can see, nestled among the grasses, spade-shaped leaves of the water-loving California native plant Miner's Lettuce. It thrives in wet soils, and is one of our best indicators that the ground is saturated. It's also very tasty, like a milder, juicier spinach, and was a great source of vitamins for California pioneers (hence its name). I dove into its significance in a blog more than a decade ago, but the take-home is that it's one of my indicators that the soils are saturated.

Native Cover Crop
A little further up, you can see the thick green carpet of grasses and broadleaf plants that are growing around the vines. This isn't a section that we seeded, instead choosing to leave the topsoil undisturbed to allow the plants that summered over to grow naturally. This is not to say that we avoid planting cover crops. We believe in them, and always seed many of our blocks each year with a mix of peas, oats, vetch, clovers, and radishes. But more and more, in the blocks that we believe can support them, we're going to leave sections to seed themselves year after year. And the lush health of this cover crop is a great indication that the goal of building rich, nutrient-dense soils is succeeding.

Head-Trained, Wide-Spaced, Dry-Farmed Grenache Vines Grafted onto St. George Rootstocks
We planted this block in 2012, as a part of our exploration into how we could help the grapes we love thrive without irrigation in our often hot-dry climate. To do this, we looked toward the past, to one of the first rootstocks developed after the phylloxera epidemic, which was widely used in the many California vineyards planted before irrigation became widespread in the 1970s. This is the famously deep-rooting, high vigor St. George rootstock, 100% from vitis rupestris stock, which fell out of favor in irrigated vineyards because of its high vigor, deep root growth, and incompatibility with some wine grapes. But Grenache? Not a problem. It grafts well to any rootstock. The deep root structure? Perfect for our calcareous clay soils, where the top several feet might be dry by late summer. High vigor? Great! Dry-farming grapes in Paso Robles is a naturally high stress endeavor. Giving the vines what they need to survive and thrive is a big piece of our goal each year. And Grenache, the lead grape in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, is originally from the hot, dry Spanish plateau, well adapted both for the Rhone's Mediterranean climate and for ours. 

This block is a great example of how we look to the past for our farming models. After all, wine grapes were grown in California for centuries before drip irrigation, and you only have to drive around Paso Robles to see the health of these old vineyards today, nearly a century after they were planted. What do these old vineyards all have in common? Low density (wide spacing). Head-training. Dry-farming. We have high hopes that the vineyards we are planting in this model will be examples to future grapegrowers a century from now, while providing a hedge against near- and medium-term climate change. 

Hilltop Owl Box
At the top of the hill, you can see one of the 43 owl boxes we have scattered around the property. Back when there were just 38 of them, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg wrote about their value and even shared directions on how to build your own. These boxes, and the families of owls that they support, are a big piece of our ongoing fight against the gophers and ground squirrels that plague our region. When you commit to farming organically, you lose the ability to poison these rodent pests. You can trap gophers, and we do. But families of owls, each of which can eat 500 rodents in a nesting season, provide round-the-clock vigilance against a wider spectrum of rodents, helping maintain and restore the environment's balance. And that balance is the central tenet of Biodynamics, which seeks to turn your farm unit into a complete and naturally resilient ecosystem. Thirty years into our commitment to organics, a decade into our first forays into Biodynamics, and four years into our move toward Regenerative Organics, these owl boxes are maybe the most visible, understandable piece of that effort. 

So, what does this photo tell me? It tells a story of a healthy, balanced vineyard, planted in to a grape and in a way that aligns it with the growing conditions here. It tells the story of  vineyard practices that make best possible use of the resources that Nature provides us, those resources encouraged and supported by our farming. And it tells the story of a winter that, so far at least, is playing out exactly as we would have wished.


An assessment of winter 2021-22 after our wettest December since 2004

It seemed like a good omen for this winter when we got several inches of rain in late October. Typically, winters where there's significant early rain (like 2004-05, 2009-10, or 2016-17) end up being drought-breakers, the sorts of years where you replenish aquifers and set your vineyard up for at least a couple of vintages. But then we had an almost-entirely-dry November, which combined with the moderate la nina conditions in place this year, suggested below-average rain. So it was with relief that the storm door opened the second week of December and directed a series of weather systems at the California coast. We got measurable rain twelve of the final nineteen days of the month for a total of 11.06 inches. That puts us at something like 175% of normal rainfall to date:

Rainfall by Month Winter 2021-22

With the storm door closed at the moment, it seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at what this rain means for the winter, and more relevantly this upcoming harvest's prospects. After two dry years, it's wonderful to see how incredibly green the vineyard is, grass growing fast now that the sun is out:

Tall grass and animal enclosure

After moving them to shelter during the biggest storm, both for their own safety and so they didn't compress the wet soil too much, the sheep are back in the vineyard enjoying all the new grass:

Sheep in nursery block

The early rain, and the cover crop growth it produced, allowed us to make a full rotation through the vineyard already. It's pretty cool walking through vineyard blocks and seeing the sheep manure from just a few weeks ago already nearly obscured by regrown grass:

Tall grass and sheep manure

The water we received, despite its volume, nearly all soaked in and saturated the absorbent limestone clay layers, with only a tiny fraction percolating into our watershed. Las Tablas Creek is flowing, but it's hardly a raging torrent:

Las Tablas Creek

Evidence of the abundance of moisture at the surface is provided by new growth of water-loving plants like mushrooms (left) and miner's lettuce (right):

Mushrooms Miners Lettuce

A little break of sun is welcome at this point. It will give the recent rain a chance to penetrate deeply and will super-charge the growth of the cover crop. We're hoping to get the sheep through two more full rotations through the vineyard before we have to move them out for budbreak, and it seems likely we'll be able to given the abundance of food.

Even better, this moisture came without any significant negative impacts. Because of the absorbency of our soils, we don't worry much about erosion in the vineyard. But I was pleased to see the impact of the erosion mitigation measures  we took to keep our roads in good shape. The photo below shows one of these: straw bales that we put in drainage areas to divert the water into the vineyard, where it could soak in, rather than continuing down roadsides:

Erosion mitigation

Overall, I'm feeling like we've gotten the beginning of winter we all were hoping for. We're ahead of schedule for water, already having exceeded the full-winter totals we've seen in recent years like 2013-14, 2014-5, and (most importantly) 2020-21, with more than half the rainy season still to come. We've already booked 13 below-freezing nights, which means that the vineyard is fully and truly dormant. The cover crops look like they're in for an outstanding year. 

What would an ideal second half of winter look like? A few weeks of sun, then a resumption of more rain in the second half of January. Continued periodic storms and frosty nights in February and March. And come early April, a smooth transition to more benign weather with no more frost, so budbreak can proceed uninterrupted. Can we do it? Time will tell. But we're off to a great start.


Yes, it does get cold in Paso Robles.

[Editor's note: With this blog, we introduce Austin Collins to the Tablas Creek blog audience. Cellar Assistant here at Tablas Creek since the beginning of 2019, Austin's history here on the property goes much further back than that, as our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins is his dad and he grew up here on property. Now with Neil having moved to town Austin is back living on-site, and I am very excited for you to get to see Tablas Creek through his eyes!]

By Austin Collins

Before I give you what you really want I feel that I am obliged to introduce myself. My name is Austin Collins, but most people refer to me simply as "Boo". While I am officially titled as a Cellar Assistant my role at Tablas Creek Vineyard was graciously expanded last year. I now have the unique honor of living on premises with my growing family as property caretaker. Because of this I get to spend a lot of time walking vine rows and spending some quality time with my Vitis neighbors. 

Most people know the undeniable heat that bears down on the soils of Paso Robles, but that's summer. This is winter. Along with the drop in temperature we have been blessed with a decent start to the rainy season. This week we had our second substantial rain event, which was immediately followed by a hard freeze. This combination transformed the land into a tundra like setting, frost gripping every surface before melting and dropping to the earth with the sun's first rays:

Image_50407937

It may seem like a shocking change for the vines to endure, and it is. But, that's something that makes the Paso Robles AVA so special. The buds for next year's vintage need a certain amount of chilling time to allow a timely and healthy budbreak in the spring:

IMG-2154

While the vines are entering their hibernation phase they are not the only ones out in the cold. Our cover crop, an essential cog in our farming system, is also battling the frost. We use a frost-hardy seed blend to allow plenty of time for our "coworkers", including this pea plant, to do their job for the soil:

Image_50739969

In the rows where cover crop is not seeded, native grasses hold claim. Unlike December of 2020 we already have a substantial growth of these native grasses covering the property:

Grass

With the native grasses and cover crops growing, our thoughts move to the 2022 growing season. But the past harvest still sits fresh in our minds. In fact the vineyard still hangs on as well. A few last second-crop clusters, left unpicked because they were unripe at harvest time, remain clutched to the canes:

Second

For this last photo I bring you to a special spot in the vineyard, one that I always find myself returning to. A lone willow tree that sits in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard. This Salix, a family of trees that thrive in riparian zones, is an indication of the moisture present underground even in our often-arid region:

Willow

Although it is a quiet time for viticulture work in the vineyard we cannot forget the work of the vines themselves. Storing intracellular energy to support the upcoming vintage, these cold times are vital to the wine that ends up on your table. Until spring comes I sit here on my stoop with my wife and newborn son on my lap -- the third Collins generation to live on this property -- enjoying the rain and hoping for more. We care for this land, and it is our purpose to do so. 


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. 


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache