At the beginning of last week, three weeks after we'd seen our first grapes arrive in the cellar, Chelsea estimated that we were only 10% of the way done. By the end of the week, 132.4 tons later, we sat at 35% done. We saw our first Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, and estate Syrah. We direct-pressed 2700 gallons (over 1000 cases) of Grenache for our 2019 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Our staff parking lot became parking for bins on their way into the cellar:
We're seeing some unusual timing this year, with grapes that are normally ripe later (like Roussanne and Counoise) ready to pick alongside earlier grapes like Viognier and Syrah. We're attributing this to the exceptional vine health we've seen this year, which has allowed those grapes that normally struggle with vigor as we get toward harvest season to remain green and photosynthesizing efficiently. But we're really not sure; we'll learn a lot more as we get deeper into harvest. For now, we'll enjoy seeing our harvest chalkboard fill up:
The unusual overlap of varieties is a great opportunity to see the different colors of our different grapes side-by-side. For example, the dark, opaque Syrah (left) is a great counterpoint to the more translucent amethyst of Grenache (right):
The samples we're taking on a daily basis are an even clearer illustration of the many hues in the vineyard, determined both by the grapes' inherent pigment and how close each is to harvest:
The peak of the week was Thursday, where estate Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah combined with Patelin Syrah and Patelin Rosé Grenache (those 2700 gallons I mentioned) to total over 51 tons, the most we've ever harvested in one day and more than 10% of what we're estimating we'll see the entire harvest. Chelsea pointed out how nice it was to get a day like this early in the harvest when everyone was still feeling fresh, rather than in mid-October, when everyone's already ragged.
What does it take to process 51.3 tons of grapes in a day? It begins around 1am with lights, Jordy, David, and our harvest crew arriving out in the Vermentino block. Neil arrives in the cellar at 3am to get the first press load of white going. By the time the rest of the winemaking team gets there around 6, that press is ready to empty, rinse, and refill with the next load. The first Grenache bins destined for Patelin Rosé have arrived, and our second press gets loaded with those. These two presses will cycle through press runs every 3 hours until evening. Meanwhile, bins of red grapes are unloaded from trailers as they arrive, labeled and stacked. We use a highly technical labeling system called "post-it notes":
One at a time, red bins are forklifted off their stacks, weighed, then dumped into the hopper and vibrated down the sorting table, where our team picks out any leaves or unripe or raisined clusters. The grapes then get de-stemmed and pumped into tanks to ferment. Amidst all this, all our red tanks (thankfully, not much yet) have to be pumped over, punched down, or otherwise mixed twice each day. You can see the last of the 103 bins that our rock star cellar team processed that day, in the hopper and on the sorting table:
Thankfully, the rest of the week wasn't quite at Thursday's pace, but it still resulted in a second-busiest-ever week, just a fraction of a ton less fruit than September 10-16, 2018. You can see how dramatically the harvest accelerated compared to its first three weeks:
I mentioned a few weeks ago that we felt harvest's wave building, but that it hadn't broken yet. Now it has, and we spent last week paddling fast. Everything looks great in the vineyard, and the flavors and numbers on the fruit we've been picking have been ideal. So, if I can push the analogy a little further, we're up on the board, and going to ride this one as long as we can.
We've been picking, little by little, for about two weeks. We began with some Pinot Noir from my parents' place and Viognier from here, and then last week got our first Grenache Blanc, Syrah, and (bizarrely, since both are typically late-ripening) both Counoise and Roussanne. This week, we've been picking lots more Syrah, our Vermentino, and more Grenache Blanc. Chelsea estimated yesterday that we were about 10% done, and our harvest chalkboard isn't as empty as it used to be:
After a hot few days over the weekend, we've had a bit of respite the past few days. Clouds are unusual here in the summer and early fall, and although we didn't get the rain that some other parts of California did yesterday, it made for an unusual tableau. Equally welcome, temperatures topped out in the seventies:
It's useful to remember, when thinking about harvest for a Rhone specialist like us, that we'd expect it to take roughly two months between beginning and end. And since it's roughly six weeks between veraison and harvest, it's not surprising that we still have rainbow clusters (particularly in Mourvedre, our latest-ripener) even as we're bringing in our first grapes:
Our other grapes have mostly finished veraison. This Tannat cluster looks like it's ready to pick, although sugars are still a little low and it's likely a couple of weeks out:
White grapes are starting to pick up the more golden hue that they get as harvest approaches. Roussanne isn't quite at the russet color from which it derives its name yet, but it's getting there. It's a sign of the vineyard's health that Roussanne, often not ready until late October, has already started to come in. Normally, the grape's susceptibility to virus and stress-related devigoration slows ripening to a crawl sometime in August. Not this year:
Even Counoise, which we wouldn't normally expect until mid-October, has made an appearance in the cellar. The clusters are beautiful, and the grapes make amazing eating. You might be able to tell, just by looking, why it was so valued as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes last century:
Most wine lovers, I've found, have pictures in their heads about what a vineyard should look like. These pictures pretty much all have ripe grapes hanging on the vine, dark purple and delectable. In reality, the window in which that scene is present is a relatively narrow one. But it's happening now. If you're coming out for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat:
And no, that's not a stock photo. I took it in our Counoise block yesterday. Happy harvest season, everyone.
This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.
We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:
The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:
And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:
But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:
If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.
We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.
How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?
To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.
It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.
[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're pleased to introduce a new author. Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm has been a vital part of the Tablas Creek team since 2013. He grew up in Templeton, CA, on the Muscat vineyard his father owned. He recently returned from leading the 2019 Tablas Creek cruise, along with Winemaker Neil Collins.]
By Craig Hamm. Photos by Craig Hamm and Annika Sousa.
In June, our Winemaker Neil Collins, his wife Marci, my wife Annika and I shared the truly amazing experience of visiting the southern Rhone and cruising the Mediterranean. Now that a little time has passed and we've begun preparing for the upcoming harvest, I am reflecting back on the trip.
The first part of my trip began before the cruise, and even before the pre-cruise visit which brought guests to Beaucastel. Neil wanted to give me a couple of days to explore the many projects of Famille Perrin, so we arrived in France a few days early. Cesar Perrin met us at the hotel and we headed to Beaucastel. Upon approaching the Chateau we stopped on the side of an overpass looking at a road that split the Beaucastel estate in two. On one side, Chateauneuf du Pape. On the other side, Cotes du Rhone, whose grapes form the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. There were no fences to protect from deer or to delineate boundaries. Cesar pointed out several small cypress trees used as markers for the property line. Not like the Central Coast!
There were tractors running through this rocky soil known as “galets”. I'd seen seen pictures of the vineyards in Chateauneuf, and I knew there were going to be some rocks but in person these things were tough to walk on. I imagine the days of working this land would really strengthen one's ankles.
And yet, a continent away, there were reminders of home. We were able to see bloom taking place on the Grenache vines and remember that same smell that we had just left in Paso Robles, and we stopped to pay our respects to the rows of mother vines from which our vineyard material is derived.
Driving up to the Chateau was an exciting moment. Cesar opened up two grand doors and walked us downstairs to a quiet and dark cellar, lined with red brick floors and large oak casks. As we wound through the cellar, Neil would point to things he remembered using during his stint at Beaucastel in 1997, like sulfuring the bank of concrete tanks we passed, smooth with tiles on the inside. Deeper in the cellar, where the bottles age, we meet up with Cesar's brother Charles and a small group of tasters from Bordeaux. We tasted through different decades of whites and reds then sat together for a family style meal. It was just a hint at the start of what would become a wine lover’s ideal getaway.
After lunch, we visited Le Grand Prebois, the main cellar for the wines of Famille Perrin. This cellar was a mixture of a Gothic Cathedral and Chateau de Beaucastel:
After a short visit, we headed off to the village of Gigondas, at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail ridges. Past the village, up a track traversing a steep mountainside covered with terraced old vines, we found ourselves at the top looking over the entire Rhone Valley. It was patchwork of different shades of green from oaks, pine, and of course grapevines. Walking the vines we were shown some of the spots so precarious that they have to plow the vineyards by horse. Back down the hillside we met back up with the same group we had tasted with earlier that day to enjoy some freshly made pizza along with a selection of 1975, 1985, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2015 Chateau de Beaucastel whites. Yes, white wines can age. Several other amazing bottles were opened at the table that night, but none as special as a 1974 Chateau de Beaucastel -- the last vintage that family patriarch Jacques Perrin made from start to finish. That's Cesar (left) and Charles (right), with Neil and the vertical of Beaucastel Blanc.
The whirlwind of the first day left me speechless but also grateful for the Perrin family’s hospitality. Day two began with similar intensity with a tour of vineyards, this time led by Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time Oenologist, recently retired, below left, with Neil). First stop was atop a small hill in the parking lot of an old church, with a panoramic view of the Cotes du Rhone, the vineyards a collage of small parcels, each with its own slight difference in row orientation, growth, or age. It was wild to see so many vines with such age. Using passing cars on the road as markers for the property outlines was a fun challenge in itself.
We clambered back into the oversized passenger van that we'd been using and headed north to Vinsobres. Since the van was too big to fit into some of the village's tiny streets, we parked outside the ancient town walls and walked in for lunch. Vinsobres was one of the most fragrant places on the trip with flowering vines and small parcels of lavender fields and wild red poppy flowers dotting the landscape. The soil types ranged from sandy to heavy limestone that mirrors our most western block on the Tablas Creek property. On this site we were able to see 80 year old Grenache vines, still producing great canopies and clusters. Claude turned onto a dusty dirt road with lavender and oak trees neatly lined up. I asked his reason for this in my attempt at broken French, and he replied simply “truffe” -- French for truffles.
Continuing our whirlwind tour of Rhone regions, we crossed the Rhone river and stopped in at Domaine des Carabiners to taste their Lirac and Tavel wines. The fifth-generation producer, Fabien Leperchois, who is married to Claude's daughter Anaïs, achieved organic certification in 1997, and Demeter biodynamic certification in the vineyard as well as the cellar in 2009. The fact that they farm Biodynamically on a similar acreage to Tablas Creek got Neil fired up to see how they set up preparations and the equipment they used. Fabien joined us, we all piled back in the van, and headed to the road (below) that separates Lirac and Tavel.
Fabian pointed out that the rocky soil contains the same stones from the Rhone River, and Claude tossed me a small “galet” as a souvenir. We tasted their wine on an overlook, above the vineyards in the area. We continued our tour to the little town square of Tavel, where there is an ancient Roman washing station that leads into small personal gardens that are fed by aqueducts, where we tasted a couple more Tavel biodynamic wines. We finished the night around a big family table outside the Gouan family home nestled amongst the vines of Beaucastel for dinner along with more wine.
Our own tour complete, the next morning we headed south to Avignon to meet up with the team of Tablas Creek cruise participants for the wine dinner that kicked off the cruise festivities. From this point we were following the cruise itinerary like all the guests, beginning the next morning with a group tour of the Chateau de Beaucastel vineyard, cellar and library. We got to taste several of the vintages of white and red Beaucastel in the library. There is nothing more you could ask for than sipping Chateauneuf du Pape in the cellar of one of the region's most storied estates. From there we whisked up to Gigondas for a wine paired lunch at Clos des Tourelles with Charles Perrin.
We had a nice walk about the village, then back to the bus and to our next destination Aix-en-Provence, where we checked in to the hotel and had the opportunity to take a guided walk into town, ending at a beautiful Gothic church. When we settled in for the night, we'd earned our good night's sleep.
The next morning, we continued south toward Monaco, where the cruise ship waited for us, stopping on the way at Chateau Font du Broc, a beautiful winery in Provence to taste some Vermentino and of course rosé, enjoy a delicious lunch, and admire the views of vines running down towards the valley and an expansive horse paddock.
This was my first time on a cruise. It was wild to see this 10-story ship that we would call home for the next week.
On embarkment in the evening we got to enjoy some Tablas Creek on our terrace with the lights of Monaco, its sailboats and yachts as our backdrop. Truly a great way to see the city off.
When we awoke the next morning, we were in Italy. Portofino is a picturesque little fishing port that looked to me a movie set, with everything just perfectly placed and lit up by the bright blue sea.
Next stop was Corsica, the Mediterranean island that is a part of France, but with a culture that owes nearly as much to Italy. We were the first American group to visit Domaine San Micheli, owned by the gracious Phélip family. The visit was a family affair, with the grandson opening the wines as the grandmother and grandfather poured the wines, alongside the winemaker. We went through a little geography of the region and continued to try wines from all over the island in a wine-education-style lunch.
Next, on to Sardinia, the larger island south of Corsica that belongs to Italy. In Sardinia Annika and I walked through a church that had been built on ancient Roman baths that were later discovered during renovations. We also walked around the Bastione Saint Remy for the expansive views:
The cruise ship made its next stop on the southern Italian island of Sicily, before turning west toward Spain. In Trapani we had a great day swimming in the Mediterranean to rest our feet, which had covered a lot of cobblestoned kilometers over the last week. The water was clear and shallow for hundreds of yards. Side note: watch out for jellyfish. I got stung.
The next day we spent at sea, making the long trip from Sicily to the Spanish coast. This was the occasion of our winemaker(s) dinner, where we poured magnums of Esprit and Esprit Blanc with the main course. But it wasn't the only on-board wine activity. We had a couple of wine receptions, and Neil and I hosted a seminar where we broke down the blending process, tasting all the components and the final blend. And, of course, wine at dinners. There was plenty of wine on this trip, even on days we weren't visiting wineries.
Finally, we arrived in Spain, the last of the four countries we'd visit on this trip, and where we'd spend the longest. In Almeria (below left), we got to visit a Moorish castle. In Cartagena (below right), we ate enough tapas to feed a small army.
But this being a wine cruise, we continued our education too. At Bodega Mustiguillo, in the Utiel‐Requena region, we dove into Bobal, a grape long thought to be good only for bulk wine that is being rediscovered as a quality wine making grape, used for rosé sparkling and several different blended wines. It was an interesting wine and reminded me of Tannat, in that the goal was to not have the tannins overpower the fruit. We got to try one from 95 plus year old vines. A cool learning experience for me, and a reminder that there are tons of grapes with the ability to make fun and delicious wines.
Our last day excursion was on the Spanish island of Mallorca, to tour a couple more wineries. They were a great contrast, with Bodega Ribas the oldest family owned winery in Spain and Mesquida Mora an up and coming producer, and biodynamic. The wines were amazing.
As good as the wines were on the whole trip, my take home from the cruise was that the company was even better. I started out not knowing a large majority of the guests but in the end after bus rides and shared dinner tables, beaches and of course evenings in Horizons Bar I felt like we were all family. I now know people who champion Tablas Creek from Virginia, Florida, Texas and all sorts of other places. For myself, as a first trip to Europe this is one for the books. Thank you to everyone that made this possible.
Although most of the 2019 growing season has been on the cool side, we've had a couple of warm weeks since my last update. Nothing extraordinary for August (when our average high temperature is 92°F) but the first half of the month saw an average high of 93.8°F and two days late last week topped 100°F. And then, the weather broke, and we had an absolutely stunning weekend, with highs of 73 and 74, a nice breeze off the ocean, and cool, crisp nights down in the 40s.
I took advantage of the cool this morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're just a touch before veraison's midpoint, maybe 40% overall. So, there are nearly as many berries pink or red as there are still green. Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills. I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start.
Syrah is easily the most advanced red grape. I'd estimate it's at roughly 80% versaison. The clusters in the below photo are maybe a touch more advanced than average:
Although it will be late to harvest, Mourvedre actually went into veraison before Grenache. It's still only at about 40% through, I would estimate, and because it takes so long between veraison's end and when it's ready to pick, we're not likely to see it before October.
There is not much in a vineyard setting that is more beautiful than a Grenache cluster going through veraison. A single cluster can look like a rainbow:
I'd estimate that Grenache is only about 30% into veraison; the cluster above was unusually advanced.
Last week, I walked two different Counoise blocks and couldn't find any veraison except on a few weak vines. But this morning, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It's still far more green than red, and overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:
White grapes go through veraison too, although it's hard to photograph the subtle color changes that they undergo. But as they get close to ripeness, you do start to see a yellower tint to the formerly-green grapes.
We're guessing that the first grape we'll get into the cellar will be Viognier. You can start to see the color change in the grape clusters in the photo below:
With the combination of plentiful rainfall last winter and our relatively mild summer, I saw fewer signs of stress than I can ever remember in mid-August. I'll share some shots that give you a little more of a view of the vines (in addition to the multicolored clusters). First, Syrah:
And second, another Counoise shot, maybe my favorite of the entire day. Counoise is typically looking a little ragged by now, with as much brown or yellow in its leaves as green. Not this year:
This year, as both Jordyand I have noted, has been cool. Even the warm stretches have been moderate. And the vineyard has noticed. While in most years I would be posting about veraison in mid-to late-July, this year we didn't see any evidence of color until just a few days ago. And it's still barely started. But now, if you head to one of our Syrah blocks, you don't have to look too hard to find veraison:
Veraison is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. The most advanced Syrah cluster I could find has some berries that don't look all that different than they will at harvest:
It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green (you can see this in all the other clusters in the above photo). At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, I couldn't find any red in any of them. This Mourvedre cluster is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you the same thing:
Although the "first veraison of the season" posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be several weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and longer than that until late grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise finish coloring up.
While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying. For example, 2007's first veraison was in mid-July, but relatively light crop levels and a very warm August produced a beginning to harvest before the end of August. By contrast, in 2010 a veraison ten days later than 2007's (July 30th, just like this year) was compounded by a very cool August, and we started harvest after the mid-point of September, three weeks later than we had in 2007. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:
Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 4th and September 17th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall.
What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will likely be followed by Mourvedre and Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, according to Jordy, although the visible changes are subtle enough that a photograph doesn't really show anything. Vermentino and Marsanne will move into veraison on the earlier side, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul in the middle, and Roussanne bringing up the rear, as usual. It's an exciting time, and the view changes daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're finishing up the last of the year's bottling, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.
I'm not sure whether veraison really marks the beginning of the end of the growing season. But it does at least seem to mark the end of the beginning. The countdown clock is ticking, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.
OK, we picked our first Viognier on August 31st. But we didn't bring in any estate reds off the property until September 10th, so I'm going with that date.
Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!
Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.
The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.
When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!
As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:
Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether. Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).
Check out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!
Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard.
Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them. When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.
To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.
Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”
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:
Vineyard check in: Grenache. All systems go. Grapevines couldn't look healthier. No signs of #veraison yet, but berries are nearing full size. You get a nice closeup at around the 20 second mark. And, oh, that sky! pic.twitter.com/xGyKXhwnfi
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:
Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
Flowering (typically May sometime)
Veraison (typically late July or early August)
First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
Last Harvest (typically late October)
Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track. Flowering, which we began mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into mid-June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season more like last year's than what we got used to the rest of the decade. An example, from one of our Grenache blocks on June 3rd:
If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear.
During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. This year, the cool spring conditions seem to have delayed flowering long enough that even our late rain in mid-May seems to have rolled through before the flowers were open enough to be susceptible to much damage, and conditions have been ideal ever since. We are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. (It's also worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.)
I always think it's interesting to compare our current year to a range of recent ones. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2019 in red, to help it stand out:
You'll likely notice a couple of things. First, May was actually cooler than April, for the first time this decade. And it felt like that too. April felt benign, with less than 0.1" of rain, no frosts, and an average high temperature of 73.4F. May was another story. The Paso Robles Wine Festival, which often coincides with our first hot weekend of the year, took place under conditions that felt more like February: low 60s, with rain threatening. We got seven days with measurable precipitation, totaling 1.44" (triple the 0.44" we average in a normal May). The average high temperature was 70.7F, and eighteen days failed to make it into the 70s. Five days failed to make it even into the 60s.
Second, you'll likely notice the rapid recovery of average temperatures in June. This trend actually began the last week of May, which was (fortunately) right when we first saw flowering. But even that warm-up has been modest, as we've yet to have the temperature here break 100. The next week looks like it's supposed to be in the 80s every day. That's pretty much ideal.
Looking for a comp is premature, as so much depends on what comes next, but it's starting off like 2015, where we ricocheted between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months. But it's also not that different from 2018, when a cool early season built to a scorching July before settling back down to a cooler harvest. But whatever the future holds, we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're 6.3% below our average number of degree days through June 16th, and 25.8% below our maximum to date (2014). That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September. I'll keep updating you throughout the summer, as there's a long way to go.
At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the winter rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season. It's not just the grapevines that are flowering away. We've got blooms all over our olive trees:
And the California poppies are still putting on a show, at a time of year when they're often past their primes:
But the main event is, as always, the grapevines. We're thrilled with what we've seen so far. Fingers crossed for more of the same. And if you visit a vineyard in the next few weeks, take a sniff... the scent can be intoxicating.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.