As we ease out of harvest, we welcome the brief and beautiful Paso Robles autumn

Since our heat wave broke on September 10th, it's felt more like fall than summer. Our average high has been 84F, and the nighttime lows have dropped into the 40s more than half the nights. The days are shorter. We've seen some clouds, and even one day (this past Saturday) where the marine layer was so thick the sun never came out. We got our first (small) rainstorm, about two months earlier than normal. If we'd had a cool summer, we might be worried that the conditions weren't going to allow the grapes still on the vine to ripen. Of course, we had a warm summer and an early start to harvest, and then the most long-lasting heat wave in our history as we entered September. Together, these conditions accelerated ripening to the point that we were roughly three weeks ahead of normal before it got cool. So, no worries about later grapes not getting ripe. But as we wind down through the last week or so of harvest, the grapevines appear to have noticed the fall-like weather and have begun their brief, beautiful autumn transformation. It's stunning, and I thought I'd share a little of it, starting with Mourvedre in the block we call Scruffy Hill:

Looking west through Grenache and Mourvedre

The vineyard colors combined with the lower sun angles and a touch of humidity in the air to produce a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west through some Syrah canopy toward the Santa Lucia Mountains:

Hills through Mourvedre foliage

If you haven't seen wine country in its autumn colors, it's different both from the high-contrast green-and-gold summer and from the softer, yell0w-green and dark brown winter season. And fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you get a frost, after which and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But given that it's rare for us to get frosts before mid-November, it seems like this year's might last a bit longer. So you'll have a little longer to catch view of Counoise vines looking like this:

Colorful Counoise vine

Often, these colors don't show up until all the grapes are off the vines. Not this year. In addition to Counoise, we've still got both Grenache (left) and Mourvedre (right) on the vines. That won't be true for much longer, as we're likely to come through our last blocks before the end of the week, but it's pretty:

Grenache cluster

Mourvedre clusters

It's been a luxury letting these grapes wait to gather a little extra hang-time. Everything could have been picked a week or two ago, if we'd wanted. But the fall-like weather has meant that we can leave the remaining clusters out to get a little more complexity and a little more sugar without worrying that the acids will fall out. That's a little-known aspect of the Paso Robles climate. By the time you get to October, the nights are typically chilly and the days, which can still get warm, are short. That's one of the reasons that it's such a good spot for late-ripening grapes like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and the like.

It's worth pointing out that not all the grapes color up like a sugar maple. Grenache is famously green, often all the way into November. I like this next shot both for how well it shows Grenache's ongoing vigor, but for how clearly it shows the chalky soils we love so much:

Grenache vines and chalky soil

One last photo, my favorite of the session, combines everything I love about the current moment. It's looking at the bottom of a head-trained Mourvedre vine, including the gnarled trunk and one of the large, loose clusters characteristic of the grape, with the colorful foliage of the rest of the block in the background:

Mourvedre cluster and colorful foliage

With benign weather on the horizon, we might have another month or more of this look. Of course, we'd love it to rain any time, and the more the better. But that's not likely until the end of the month. So, if you have the good fortune to be here over the coming weeks, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home.


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. 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 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.


Comparing Clusters and Vine Growth in Our Principal Red Rhone Varieties as Harvest 2022 Aproaches

This is a time of year when things move fast in the vineyard. In just the last couple of weeks, we've gone from just starting veraison to more than halfway through. Large swaths of fully-colored grapes don't look much different than they will at harvest, and they're getting tasty. Even better, the vines themselves still look great. Typically, by mid-August some of the lower vigor grapes (I'm looking at you, Mourvedre) start to look a little tired, with some yellowing or browning of the leaves. Not this year. Throughout the vineyard, the vines look deep green and vigorous. That bodes well for their ability to make a strong finishing push.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at our main red grape varieties, both cluster and vine, to get a comparative sense of how they grow and what they look like now. So I took a walk through our Scruffy Hill block, which we planted back in 2005 and 2006 with the idea it would someday be a vineyard block designate, and got representative photos of the four red Rhone varieties we had available to plant in that era. I then went to a new head-trained Cinsaut block to complete the quintet of grapes we think of as our core set. I'll share them in the order in which we expect them to arrive in the cellar, starting with Syrah and finishing with Mourvedre. Without further ado:

Syrah

There are Syrah blocks at the tops of our hills that look like they might only be a couple of weeks from harvest. But our Scruffy Hill section will likely be longer than that; you can see that the cluster I photographed still has a green berry, and there are other green clusters in the background. But overall I'd guess we're 80% of the way through veraison in Syrah. The grapes are characteristically blue-black, and the clusters modest in size and roughly cylindrical. In terms of the vine, you can see its vigor and its sprawling growth pattern, which is why we train it up high. That way the long canes can arc down like an umbrella instead of trailing on the ground. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Syrah Pre-harvest 2022 - Syrah Vine

Grenache

Grenache has made a lot of progress through veraison in the last few weeks, and I'd estimate it's past the 50% mark vineyard-wide. You can see in the cluster I chose its relatively pale purple color and its tightly bunched, large clusters of fairly large grapes. The vine is also characteristic: stocky and robust, looking twice as old as its 16-year age, with a large number of relatively stiff canes shooting out at a variety of angles and a plentiful supply of grapes. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Grenache Pre-harvest 2022 - Grenache vine

Cinsaut

Cinsaut may actually come in before Grenache, but the only head-trained block that we have is in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard and was impacted by the frosts we saw this spring. So, the vine's progress is a bit behind where it should be, and where the trellised blocks are elsewhere in the vineyard. But the cluster is still coloring up nicely, with a mix of colors between green and medium purple. The range of grape sizes is unusual (it's a condition colorfully known as "hens and chicks") and appears to be a symptom of the difficult weather it had during flowering. The vine, even in its youth, is already showing the long canes characteristic of Cinsaut and the vigor and upright growth pattern that made it so successful in both Mediterranean Europe and old Californian head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards. We expect it to come in roughly in synch with Grenache. 

Pre-harvest 2022 - Cinsaut Pre-harvest 2022 - Cinsaut Vine

Counoise

There are still Counoise blocks where you have to do some hunting around to find purple berries, but the Scruffy Hill block was at about 50%. This cluster shows the large berries that made Counoise a prized table grape before the development of seedless grapes, and its fairly pale color. The vine shows the moderate vigor and upright growth characteristic of Counoise. We don't expect to see our first Counoise grapes in the cellar until early October.

Pre-harvest 2022 - Counoise Pre-harvest 2022 - Counoise Vine

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre blocks, in various stages of ripening.  The Scruffy Hill Mourvedre block is lower down the hillside, and it's relatively early into veraison. But there are hilltop trellised blocks that are nearly done. Still, even when it finishes veraison Mourvedre takes a while to get to ripeness, and we're not likely to see much if any in the cellar until October. The photo below shows the grape's relatively loose clusters, which helps it shrug off early rains, should we be so lucky, and the medium-dark color that the red berries have achieved shows why it produces darker wines than Counoise, Cinsaut, or Grenache. The vine is typical of what we see in the block this year, although as I mentioned in the intro it's unusually green compared to many other years. I would normally expect our Mourvedre vines to look more or less like the Counoise photo above, but this year they have longer canes and more leafy vigor. That's as good a sign as any that the vineyard has unusual vigor and is well positioned for this finishing push.

Pre-harvest 2022 - Mourvedre Pre-harvest 2022 - Mourvedre Vine

A quick note about this year's variability

Although as I noted in a few weeks ago we're likely to challenge our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, I'm starting to believe that it's likely to be quite an extended harvest season. Thanks to the frosts we got in March, April, and May, there's more difference than I'm used to seeing between the tops of the hills (which avoided the frosts and sprouted early) and the bottoms (which either stayed dormant through the frosts or were frozen back when they emerged). And we're used to a long harvest, typically lasting around eight weeks between the arrival of the first and last fruit. This year may be longer.

Still, I'm feeling optimistic about things. We're well set up to handle uneven or delayed ripening, since we give our field crew year-round employment and pick selectively while making multiple passes through our blocks even in a normal year. If we're going to have a 10-week lag between our first and last grapes, it's good to get an early start. And if you were designing perfect ripening weather, what we've gotten the last couple of weeks and what's forecast for next week (days topping out in the upper 80s to upper 90s, with onshore flow and cool nights) would be exactly what you'd wish for.

Let's get this party started.


Veraison 2022 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip: Will This Be Our Earliest Harvest Ever?

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find a very different vineyard than the one I left. Instead of growing but bright green, pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache 2

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape development where the berries stop accumulating mass and start 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. This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although this week has been an exception, the last month of the 2022 growing season has been warm. In the 35 days since the calendar turned to summer, our average high temperature has been 93.5°F. Eight days have topped 100°F, with another fifteen topping out in the 90's. Just one day failed to make it into the 80's. But July is almost always hot in Paso Robles, and that average is less than what we saw in July 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021. And I was pleased with the vigor and health of the vines in my rambles around it today and yesterday. July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. Not this year, or at least not yet. But it's definitely been warm enough to push veraison into high gear.

We spotted our first color in the vineyard on July 12th. Now, two weeks later, Syrah is moving fast, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. The cluster on the right is a little ahead of average, mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up, while the cluster on the left is more typical:

Veraison 2022 - Syrah

Grenache is next in line. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache

Mourvedre, even though it's typically the last to be harvested, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Counoise and only slightly behind Grenache. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening. This cluster is one of the more advanced ones, and I'd estimate it's only at 5% veraison overall:

Veraison 2022 - Mourvedre

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find any color. This cluster, with a few pink-purple berries in a sea of green, is about as advanced as it gets. I'd estimate we're around 1% on Counoise, overall:

Veraison 2022 - Counoise

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison. The grapes turn from green to something a little yellower, and soften and start to get sweet. They also become more translucent. The process happens over a continuum as it does in the reds. Viognier goes first, followed by Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, with Picpoul and Roussanne bringing up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that this Viognier cluster is starting to pick up:

Veraison 2022 - Viognier

It's important to note that while the veraison 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 a week or two so before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and more than a month until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished 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 and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat and low yields gave us just a five week interim. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 August 24 34
2022 July 12 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (34 to 45 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 15th and August 26th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall, influenced as well by the crop levels, since lighter crops ripen faster than heavier ones. It looks like we're seeing medium crop levels this year, better than last year but not at the levels we saw in a year like 2017, which suggests we'd trend toward the earlier end of the range above, but maybe not challenge last year's record-short duration. Still, we have a chance of besting 2016 for our earliest-ever beginning to harvest. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. I spent some time yesterday with our Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg, and he's excited about the vines' health. It looks like we lost a little crop to sunburn during the heat spikes, but nothing crippling, and the vigor in the vineyard should give the vines the ability to make a strong finishing push. In a few weeks, we'll start sampling the early varieties, looking for the moment when the flavors are fully developed and the balance of sugars and acids ideal. In the cellar, we'll use that time to finish bottling the last of our 2020 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2021s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.  

So, now we wait, and enjoy the show. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Veraison 2022 - Syrah Horizontal


The Vineyard at the Summer Solstice: Bursting with Vigor and at Peak Green

One of the benefits of the last two pandemic years is that I'm spending more time in the vineyard than I was before. Some of that is because I'm rarely out of town, but it's equally because our Covid experience has really driven home to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. That has led to some of my favorite content, like the #grapespotlight deep-dives we did on Instagram and on Facebook last year, and the related #grapeminute YouTube video series we're working on now. But this blog remains the best avenue I have to share the seasonal changes whose rhythms determine the landscape that surrounds us and the vintage character that we'll come to know in coming months and years.

Late May and early June doesn't see big changes in look or feel, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were in the middle of flowering. Now the berries on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are pea-sized and growing fast:

Solstice 2022 - Grenache berries

A photo of Syrah gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. The principal work now in the vineyard is shoot-thinning, opening up the canopy to light and air and keeping mildew pressures (which usually peak around this time of year) under control:

Solstice 2022 - Syrah Block

If you're expecting bare dirt between the vineyard rows, the view above might look messy. But reducing tillage is one tenet of regenerative farming, and we've been increasingly replacing disking or spading the surface with mowing and mulching the cover crop. This should have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions and the potential for erosion. The Vermentino block below is another good example (as well as a great illustration of the vineyard's vigor):

Solstice 2022 - Vermentino block

I took a swing through the sections most damaged by our May frost, and was encouraged to see that the vines had re-sprouted leaves. We won't get crop off of these blocks, but the canopy growth should be enough to allow them to store up energy and come back strong next year:

Solstice 2022 - Frost Recovery

Also encouraging was the condition of the new blocks that we planted last year. I was worried that the young vines in these low-lying blocks were killed by the frost, but most of them, including the Counoise vines below, did manage to re-sprout. We'll still see some vine mortality, but less than I originally thought:

Solstice 2022 - New Counoise block

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. For example, even Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), neither of which will likely come in until mid-October, are both showing nice clusters of little berries:

Solstice 2022 - Roussanne berriesSolstice 2022 - Mourvedre berries

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall. For whatever reason, this year's cherry season has been disappointing, and the stone fruit (peaches, apricots, and nectarines) aren't carrying much fruit. But the apples and quinces are loaded: 

Solstice 2022 - Quince

The fruit trees aren't the only things we've planted in our quest for biodiversity. Last year we planted several insectaries, with flowering plants that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Those were just getting started a year ago, but are thriving now:

Solstice 2022 - Insectaries

I'll leave you with a photo I particularly love, of a dry-farmed Grenache block with vines whose health is unmistakable. That exuberance is everywhere in the vineyard right now. The noteworthy vine health, good fruit set, and larger clusters combine to suggest that even with the losses from the frost, we're likely to see a more plentiful harvest than we saw in 2021. And that's fueling some pretty noteworthy exuberance on our part, too.

Solstice 2022 - Grenache vine


Flowering and Fruit Set Provide Reasons for Optimism After a Challenging Beginning to 2022

At the beginning of the growing season, no news is usually good news. If you avoid frost, and avoid cold or wet or windy weather during flowering, you can expect to see fruit set (when the berries start to form) roughly two months after budbreak. And in the sections of the vineyard where we avoided frost, that's what we're seeing. This Syrah vine is a good example:

Fruit Set 2022 - Syrah

2022, however, has not been a news-free spring. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our frosts. And though most of the vineyard avoided dropping below freezing, it got cold everywhere, which has lesser but still important impacts on the vines' ability to fertilize the flowers and turn them into grapes.

Flowering and fruit set mark the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so highlights the extent to which 2022 has so far been an outlier, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights where temperatures bottomed out at or below 32 at our weather station. The first 53 days of the growing season (April 1st - May 23st), through the third weekend of May which we usually take as the unofficial end of frost season, provide a good marker. Here's how 2022 compares to past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights ≤ 32°F
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
2021 499 2 13 2
Average 2012-2021 491.6 3.1 17.9 0.9
2022 554 6 13 3

You can see that 2022 has been a bit warmer than average overall, but the devil is in the details (and the frost nights). We had two of our 90+ days in early April, which meant that things were far enough out that the April 12th and 13th frost nights had more impact than they might have in a cooler year. And the other frost night on May 10th was so late that everything was out far enough to take some significant damage, and the four chilly, windy days that preceded it, none of which got into the 70s, were in a position to impact flowering in our early varieties. 

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy 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. So it wasn't a shock that when I explored our Grenache blocks I found evidence of shatter:

Fruit Set 2022 - Grenache

Is this a catastrophe? No. A little shatter in Grenache can actually be a good thing, because it opens up the clusters and means we don't have to do as much fruit thinning on this famously productive grape. And that seems to be the degree we're seeing, with impacts in the 20%-50% range. It's additional good news is that I couldn't find any evidence of shatter in anything else.

Flowering is the second of the four 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 beginning late March or early April, and lasting three weeks or so)
  • Flowering (typically beginning mid-May, lasting a month or so)
  • Veraison (typically beginning late July or early August, lasting as much as 6 weeks)
  • Harvest (typically beginning late August or early September, lasting two months or so)

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given that we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom for another couple of weeks. Our late-sprouting varieties like Roussanne are still in peak flowering:

Flowering 2022 - Roussanne

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. 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, weeks after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. We might not know where everything is going. But for our early grapes, like the Viognier below, things are well on their way.

Fruit Set 2022 - Viognier


The Scruffy Hill Block: A Dry-Farming Success Story

Scruffy Hill Long View DownLooking down through the Scruffy Hill Block

We talk a lot about our Scruffy Hill block, planted head-trained and dry-farmed to a mix of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne in 2005 and 2006. It's the source of much of the fruit that we use for the En Gobelet and (increasingly) in Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, and perhaps even more importantly the test case for the 60+ dry-farmed acres on the block we call Jewel Ridge. For all that, I realized I haven't really ever dived into the place here on the blog. So let's remedy that.

The Name
Our original property of 120 acres included about 100 plantable acres on the northwest side of Las Tablas Creek, about 12 plantable acres on the southeast side of Las Tablas Creek, and about 8 acres of creekbed. The existing well here and the new well we drilled in 1990 were both in the larger parcel on the north side, where we ended up putting our winery building, tasting room, and nursery. If you've visited the property, this is probably what you think of as Tablas Creek Vineyard. We started planting this piece in 1992 and were fully planted by 2004. Those plantings were mostly trellised and irrigated (at least to get the vines established) although beginning in 2000 we started planting some of the valley-bottom, deeper soil block head-trained and dry-farmed. 

The 12 acres on the other side of Las Tablas Creek provided a different challenge. We didn't have a well over there, so we weren't able to plant irrigated vineyard. And the steep hillsides and shallower soils meant that we weren't sure how dry-farmed vines would do. So while the rest of the vineyard was neatly planted and maintained, this block was allowed to grow wild each year, then that cover crop was disked into the soil once each spring. As this was before we had a flock of sheep, it got pretty overgrown each year, and we called it "Scruffy Hill". In the map below you can see it at the lower right, to the right of the arrow pointing north.  Tablas_Creek_Vineyard_Map_2014

The Choice to Dry-Farm
We are believers in the power of dry-farming (maybe better understood as unirrigated farming) to produce grapes with maximum character of place. That should be intuitive; topsoil is pretty similar no matter where you are, while the deeper soils have more distinctive fingerprints. Traditional irrigated farming rewards the roots that sit nearest the drip emitters, so the vines tend to grow much of their root mass in the topsoil. Dry-farmed grapevines have much deeper root systems as the plants are forced to explore for water. 

As we approached the challenge of planting Scruffy Hill, we looked to models old and new. [I wrote about this in a blog series on dry-farming from 2015.] After our research, we felt confident that if we planted at low density, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which it could pull scarce water, we'd have a chance of the vineyard thriving. You don't have to look far to see 100-year-old vineyards planted this way here in Paso Robles; the Zinfandel and other heritage vines that first established the region in the wine world were planted before irrigation technology existed. And Scruffy Hill, planted in a 12 x 12 diamond pattern at just 350 vines per acre, has thrived. Walking through the vineyard block you can feel them radiating health, bright green, bushy, and robust, like this Grenache vine:

Scruffy Hill Grenache closeup

Although the low vine density means that our overall yields off Scruffy Hill are around two tons per acre, we've found that the block suffers less than our closer-spaced blocks do when we have a drought year or a heat spike. Part of that can be explained by the deep root system. But part of it is simple math. Our trellised, irrigated blocks have between 1600 and 1800 vines per acre. So while a drought year might bring half of our normal 26" of rainfall, our wide-spaced, dry-farmed vines still get (per-vine) roughly double the rainfall per vine than the closer-spaced blocks do in an average rainfall year. Yes, we can supplement via the irrigation drip lines if we want, but we just can't put enough water on the vineyard to make up the difference of more than a foot of rain.

To help the vines make it through their first two years, we used a very old-fashioned irrigation technique: 5-gallon buckets, with a hole drilled in the bottom so that the water came out slowly enough that it would be absorbed instead of running off the surface. They got one bucket each year, around mid-summer. Other than that, and since then, they've been on their own.  

The Soils
All of our vineyard is rugged, with large concentrations of calcareous deposits. Those high-calcium soils are a big piece of why we chose this spot in the first place. But there are still differences, with lower, flatter areas tending to have more topsoil over those limestone layers. Scruffy Hill, though, is all pretty steep, and the calcareous soils are evident:

Scruffy Hill Grenache and Soil

Here's a closeup. An easy life for the vines, this is not:

Scruffy Hill Soil

The Significance
The vines on Scruffy Hill, as they've matured, have come to be more and more important in our top red blends. It has since 2010 been the overwhelming source of our En Gobelet, which we make entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed estate vineyard blocks, and dedicate to our wine club members each year. In more recent years, lots from Scruffy Hill have found their way into Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie as well. But the block's most important contribution to the work we do has been as a test case. When we bought the next parcel to the south of us in 2011, the success we had with Scruffy Hill gave us the confidence to plant it entirely head-trained, dry-farmed, wide-spaced pattern. That piece (which we now call Jewel Ridge) points our way toward success even in a future where ground water supplies are unreliable or unavailable. We also planted a big section of our westernmost block to head-trained, wide-spaced Grenache and Mourvedre, and are looking for relevant opportunities to do the same as we start the process of replanting weaker blocks in our original vineyard. For now we're at about half our acreage planted in this pattern, and that proportion is likely to grow. All this became viable because of the success we saw with Scruffy Hill.

Scruffy Hill Right Now
For all that, I don't want to downplay how great (and beautiful) a vineyard block it is in its own right. So let's take a little tour. At this time of year, the vineyard is changing fast. A month ago it had barely sprouted. Now the canes are a couple of feet long and still growing fast. The canopy of leaves is dense. This helps shade the clusters of fruit from the intense sun. Later in the growing season, the weight of the clusters will pulls down on the canes, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew. But for now you can see how vertical the shoots are, by and large:

Scruffy Hill Long View

Zooming in toward the vines shows that the early grapes, like the Grenache vine below, are in the middle of flowering, although later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise aren't quite there yet:

Scruffy Hill Flowering Grenache

I'll leave you with one more photo, looking up at essentially the same view that the first photo gave you looking down. Both the Mourvedre vines in the foreground and the Grenache vines toward the top of the hill are looking great, under a classic Paso Robles early summer blue sky. We might not know where these grapes will be going, but I'm already sure it will be someplace great. Scruffy Hill cleans up pretty well, it turns out:

Scruffy Hill Overview Square


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.