What separates a great wine dinner from the many good ones?

I've hosted a lot of wine dinners the last few months. Restaurants, understaffed and overwhelmed in the aftermath of Covid, are starting to have the bandwidth to refocus on special events. Add to that the fact that after a few years where yields were low and demand was high, we finally have wine to sell, so I've been traveling more. And sprinkle on top some invitations that I thought were too cool to turn down, including the Paso Robles Asia tour and the Tasting Climate Change conference in Montreal. At each city I visit, I try to set up a dinner, because I think they are the best way to share the wines and story of Tablas Creek. 

All the dinners I've had the pleasure of hosting this year have been good. Most have been very good. But last week, I hosted a dinner with Chef Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore that was one of the best I can ever remember, and it got me thinking about what it was that separated it from others. I think the event nailed all five of the elements of a great wine dinner:

  • Inspiration. A great menu requires creativity. After all, a great pairing is not as simple as making a dish have similar flavors to the wine it's supposed to pair with. There are times where what a dish (or wine) needs is contrast. And then there's the talent that the greatest chefs have to make dishes that pull subtle notes out of the wines they're paired with and make it somehow taste more like itself. In my experience, great pairings are created by chefs who sit down with a wine and build the dish around it. After all, the wine isn't something that can be changed. The food has to have the right flavors and the right volume to have presence while still allowing the wine to shine. That's not an easy balance to strike. And the wines themselves should be selected because the chef found them inspiring to pair with. It’s hard to make a truly great dinner with, for example, the four wines your distributor may happen to have in quantity.
  • Execution. It should go without saying that it takes more than a great menu to have a great meal. The food needs to be served promptly, and get to the diners hot. That's not easy when making the same dish for 20 or 40 or 70 people. That takes a chef with a good team and good organizational skills, and a front-of-house staff that can keep up.  
  • Atmosphere. That doesn't need to be luxurious. The Woodberry Kitchen dinner was served outside on their brick patio on a drizzly evening. But the chairs were comfortable. The lighting was great. And the three large communal tables meant that the conversation was lively and everyone engaged. Restaurants often try to keep their standard table seating for wine dinners, and place each group at its own table. But in my experience that's a mistake. Bringing people together into larger tables creates a special sort of energy. It also means that solo diners aren't left by themselves.
  • Pacing. A great wine dinner is like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too fast, not too slow. You need space for people to learn about the wines and hear from the winemaker. It's frustrating when people are poured a new wine, you start to talk about it, and then the food is served right away. You're left to talk over the hubbub of service while everyone’s food gets cold. Not ideal. But these multi-course affairs (typically 4 or 5 five courses, and sometimes more) can also drag if the kitchen can't keep up or there's too much time between courses. I finished one dinner at 11pm recently. That dinner started with a reception at 6pm. That's a marathon, and can often result in people losing energy (or drinking too much) before the last few courses are served.  
  • Personality. Guests come to a wine dinner for more than a good meal. They come to learn about the winery, and about the restaurant. They want to hear the inspiration for the different courses, and come away with a new idea or two about food and wine pairing. That requires both a winery representative and a chef interested in sharing their stories and their inspiration and with the talent to keep an audience engaged and bring them along on a journey.

One complicating factor is that it's a surprising but true fact that most chefs aren't all that into wine. Some don't drink at all, or drink liquor or beer. Others like wine, but think of it as an accessory to their food rather than an equal partner. And these chefs can produce good, even very good wine dinners. After all, how wrong can you go with a delicious dish and a delicious wine? But the best wine dinners, in my experience, are designed and executed by chefs who love and are intrigued by wine's mysteries. And at last week's Woodberry Kitchen dinner, Chef Spike's love for the food he was cooking, the pairings he created, and the wines that were featured came through with clarity. 

These photos (thank you to Woodberry Kitchen for taking and sharing them) should give you a sense. The menu was remarkable, and included dishes like asparagus and crab en croute with caviar beurre blanc (left, paired with our Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and filet of beef en valise with smoked oysters and sauce treize cepages (right, paired with two older vintages of our Esprit de Tablas). And critically, all the courses got to the table in great time and at the right temperature.

Woodberry Dinner - Asparagus & crab en croute Woodberry Dinner - Beef with oyster course

The selection of wines included some unusual treats like 2012 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas, our 2022 Dianthus rosé, and the 2018 Vin de Paille Quintessence, which we shipped specially out from the winery.

Woodberry Dinner - Wines

The long, communal tables meant that the conversations were lively all night. Everyone had enough space without feeling isolated:

Woodberry Dinner - Tables

The pacing meant that I had a chance to tell the story of each wine. As if by magic, as soon as I was done speaking the next course appeared. Of course, that's not magic, that's planning and a great team:

Woodberry Dinner - Jason speaking

Finally, at the end, Spike came out to accept a well-deserved ovation and talk about the inspiration for the dinner. He talked about a few of the courses, but like any good storyteller focused on the personal side of things: his own formative years as a young chef where he was invited by my brother to participate in a food and wine showcase in the Caribbean, and ended up between Jean-Pierre Perrin and Jean-Louis Chave listening to them dissect a meal and the pairings that went with it. Some thirty years later, we all were the beneficiaries of the lessons he learned, then and later.

Woodberry Dinner - Jason Spike and Danny


April in Paso Robles is Peak Green

If you asked me to pick my favorite month in Paso Robles, it would be April. The days are longer, and the sun warmer. You get your first days in the 70s and by the end of the month probably touch 80 once or twice, but the nights are still chilly and you're coming out of the winter season which makes the warmth all the more welcome. The grapevines burst out of dormancy and come to life. And the combination of green hillsides, blue skies, and puffy white clouds is remarkable:

Green vineyard and blue skies April 2024

Of course, April isn't without risk. The new growth is vulnerable to frosts, and days that top out in the low 60s can freeze at night. We saw some light damage from a cold night last weekend, and were grateful that it didn't come three weeks later, when the whole vineyard would have sprouted. These last few weeks of dormancy provide a striking contrast between the dark brown vine trunks and the electric green of the cover crops, as in this view of our Scruffy Hill block:

Puffy clouds over green Scruffy Hill April 2024

The flowers you see in the above photo are the daikon radishes from our cover crop. After our flock of sheep passes through, the plants that were grazed are stimulated to reproduce, sending up a carpet of flowers and seeds. That's even more dramatically in evidence in the head-trained Tannat block below:   

Flowing cover crop in dry-farmed Tannat April 2024

It's not just the growth of the cover crops and grapevines that make it feel so alive in April. Standing in the middle of the vineyard the buzz of bees and the chirping of birds envelop you. And looking down you can see the life in evidence everywhere:

Ladybug on Roussanne trunk

In April, there's still enough moisture in the air to provide a nice sense of distance, as visible in this view over the western edge of our property toward the peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains roughly eight miles away:

Looking west from Crosshairs block in April

We'll be getting all this growth under control in coming weeks, with the goals of retaining the lovely moisture we got this winter, allowing cold air to drain and so reducing our risk of frost, and leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible while doing so to protect the soil networks. So the picture is going to change by the day.

I'll leave you with one photo, from a perspective easily visible if you approach Tablas Creek on Vineyard Drive from the south. As an introduction to Tablas Creek, I don't feel like we could do much better:

Tablas Creek sign and owl box on Scruffy Hill

Happy April, everyone.

Budbreak 2024: Right on Time

This winter has continued to follow a pattern something close to the platonic ideal of a Paso Robles winter. Some November rain to get the cover crop started. A cold December, to force the vines into dormancy. Regular and plentiful rain January through March, to keep soil temperatures down, but with sunny and warmer intervals, to encourage cover crop growth. And then a turn in April toward spring-like weather. And as we'd expect, as we passed the spring equinox we've started to see budbreak in our early-sprouting varieties. Below are Viognier (left) and Syrah (right):

Budbreak 2024 - Viognier Budbreak 2024 - Syrah

The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the classic nature of what we've seen:

2023-24 Winter Rainfall through March

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, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Syrah tend to go first, followed by Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. We've seen budbreak in all the early varieties, but are still waiting even for the middle varieties like Marsanne, which I was surprised to find still fully dormant on a ramble around the vineyard yesterday:

Budbreak 2024 - Marsanne

This year is about average for us, significantly later than most of our drought years, though a couple of weeks earlier than 2023. The timing that we're seeing comes despite that we haven't recorded a below-freezing night here at our weather station since February 12th. That budbreak waited some six weeks after our last frost reinforces the importance of wet soils, which hold cool temperatures better than dry soils do. For an overview, here's when we saw budbreak the last dozen years:

2023: First week of April
2022 Mid-March
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

In addition to the variation by variety, there's variation by elevation and vineyard block. Grenache is a good example. I took the following four photos as I walked up the hill. The first photo is from the bottom of the block, where cool air settles at night. You can see the buds swelling, but no leaves yet:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache bottom of hill

A little further up the hill, you see the first leaves emerging:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache lower middle of hill

At roughly two-thirds of the way up the hill, you see some buds unfurling larger leaves:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache upper middle of hill

And at the top of the hill, nearly all the buds are out:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache top of hill

It will be another few weeks before we see much sprouting in late-emerging grapes like. This is Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), both looking more or less as they would have in mid-winter:

Budbreak 2024 - Roussanne

Budbreak 2024 - Mourvedre

Now our worries turn to frost. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011 and a May frost cost us 20% of our production in 2022, with Mother's Day marking the unofficial end of frost season. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

That said, there's nothing particularly scary in our long-term forecast. We're supposed to get one more late-winter storm later this week, but it doesn't seem likely to drop below freezing. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2024 vintage.

The most recent atmospheric river was great news for Paso Robles wine country

That last California storm was a doozy. Los Angeles got nearly an entire year's worth of rainfall in one day. The mountains outside Santa Barbara received enough rain that water levels at Lake Cachuma rose more than 5 feet and are now at the spillway. The Sierra Nevada stations recorded more than five feet of snow. We even had two tornadoes touch down here in San Luis Obispo county, the first time tornadoes have been recorded here since 2004. Thankfully, California was well prepared for these storms, and loss of life and property appears to have been pretty low.

Here in Paso Robles, we were north of the areas most affected by the storm. But still, it was wet, wild, and windy, with about 2.5" falling on Sunday and another inch over the next few days. I posted this video on Sunday, taken out our back deck. Turn the sound on to hear the wind:

To keep our people safe and potential customers off the road, we closed our tasting room Sunday. Still, Neil braved the storm to see how things looked and sent some photos and videos. The vineyard was holding up great. Most of the three inches of rain we received had soaked in, with only a little flowing down the new drainage channel we built this winter:

Drainage channel draining

The capacity of these calcareous soils to absorb water is amazing. And particularly at this time of year, with the cover crops so well established, we hardly ever worry about erosion. But it's still a substantial test to get three inches of rain in a day, or six inches in five days. Working in our favor is the fact that, unlike last January, when we got 20 inches of rain in three weeks on top of already-saturated soils, what we're seeing this year is well within historical norms. In fact, you can barely distinguish the average from the actual rainfall in our monthly rainfall graph:

Rainfall 2023-24 vs Avg through February

Even the roads held up well, thanks to the matting of straw, reeds, and rushes that we placed over them earlier this winter:

Matting on roads

Overall, we're at 111% of normal rainfall to date, mostly because February is only about one-third done and it's typically our second-wettest month. There's every reason to expect more rainfall before the calendar turns to March. But the next week looks sunny, which will be lovely, as it gives time for the soils to draw that water down to deeper layers and is prime growing season for the cover crops. Already, it's so green it practically hurts your eyes:

Oak Tree and Green Vineyard

The sheep are loving all the new grass, particularly after having been on dry feed for a week in our barn while the storm blew through. At this point, we'll likely be able to leave them out in the vineyard in future storms, since the root systems are well enough established that we're no longer particularly worried about soil compaction.

Sheep on Scruffy Hill

I'll leave you with one last photo, which showcases the ingenuity of our vineyard team. We choose to put our compost pile in one of the lowest sections of the vineyard, where water drains in periods of heavy rain. In the late fall, we arrange our compost piles perpendicular to the flow of that water so that water is infused with the nutrients as it flows through: a sort of compost tea on a grand scale. Then, we dug a series of catchment basins downstream from the compost piles. This slows the flow of the water and encourages it to soak in rather than running off. Finally, once those basins start to fill up, we pump the nutrient and microbe-infused water out and spray it onto our nearby vineyard blocks between rainstorms. This shares all the goodness that's in the compost piles across many acres of the property.

Spraying compost tea from retention basins

So, if you were reading headlines about the storms and wondering about how the vineyards in Paso Robles were faring, you don't need to worry. Things are looking great. 

Winter means the best vineyard sunsets

It feels strange for this Vermont-raised kid to say, but I've become a fan of clouds. There are months that go by here in Paso Robles where you don't see any, and as nice as that probably sounds to those of you blanketed in snow and ice at the moment, it does get old, with the sun feeling like the eye of Sauron by late summer.

But with the advent of fall comes winter weather systems making their way through California. If that happens at the end of harvest, it can be nerve-wracking. But usually it's not a problem here and we're grateful for the moisture. Visually, the combination of shorter days and clouds in the sky means great sunsets. Over the last three months I've been trying to take a walk around the property at dusk each week so I could document the vineyard's transition from fall to winter. If you've been following our social media, you've likely seen several photos from these rambles. But I've also been storing up some sunset pictures that I've loved, and have put them together in this blog. I'll divide them up into three sections, in chronological sequence. First, some shots from the first rain of the year, in mid-November. The color palette is still that of fall, with the leaves still on the vines and the golden hue of dried grasses emphasized by the intense orange glow of the setting sun:

Fall sunset over Mourvedre ex-Chard

Another shot from later that same evening caught the sun reflected off our solar array:

Fall sunset over solar panels

Fast-forward a month to mid-December, and the rain we had received in the intervening month had changed the color settings from summer's gold to winter's green, except that it had been mild enough that there were still leaves on many of the hillside vineyard blocks. This is one of my favorite color combinations to catch, and it's so fleeting that many years -- when we get a hard freeze before it rains -- it doesn't happen at all:

Winter sunset over new green grass

In addition to catching the light, one of the other things that the clouds do is give depth to the layers of mountains to the west of us. In the summer, it's so dry here that it's hard to know whether the peaks of the Santa Lucias are a mile away, or five, or ten. But the moisture in the winter air brings their parade of peaks and valleys into clearer contrast:

Winter sunset over Mourvedre and Santa Lucia Mountains

While in December the tops of our hills still had leaves, the lower areas had seen a few freezes already. That made the grapevines in those blocks -- like this head-trained Counoise vine -- stand out in stark contrast to the green grass and theatrical sky:

Winter sunset over Counoise

Now, in January, the whole vineyard is dormant and the grass has had another month to grow. This scene won't change much for the next three months, except that the cover crop will have periodic trimmings as the flock of sheep move through, and the wild unruliness of last year's tangled canes gives way to orderly patterns as we come through to prune. This is a photo we shared over the weekend on our social media, taken about 20 minutes after sundown thanks to the iPhone's remarkable ability to render in low light. We're looking north, down between hillside Muscardin and Bourboulenc blocks, over head-trained Tannat and Cinsaut in the valley, and then back up over Grenache and Counoise. It's my favorite view of the property, though it's not one I think I've taken before this deep into dusk:

Winter rendering after dark
I'll leave you with one of my favorite shots from that same session, looking west instead of north. The last light of the western sky silhouettes the dormant Mourvedre canes, one of our owl boxes, and the incoming storm front that would eventually go on to drop an inch of rain on us. 

Winter sunset and dormant vines

Happy winter, everyone.

A welcome, gentle start to the Paso Robles rainy season

What a difference a year makes. This week last year we were in the middle of a three-week stretch where four separate atmospheric river storms slammed into the California Central Coast, totaling nearly 20 inches of rain. That was more than we'd received any of the three previous winters, and all that water overwhelmed the creeks, culverts, and drainage basins and produced flooding with visual images so dramatic that we found ourselves the subject of stories in Decanter, Wine Spectator, Fox Weather, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the BBC.

Still, while last year was extreme, it's usually wet in December. This year's monthly total was 5.13", or 103% of normal for what is typically our second-wettest month. Even better, it's come gently, in three separate storms, each of which spread out across two days. After a November where we received about 80% of our expected precipitation, this year is trending curiously... normally. It's also been relatively warm; after eight below-freezing nights in later November and early December, we haven't frosted since December 13th. These last three warm, wet weeks have provided outstanding conditions for the cover crop to get established, and it's ahead of last year's growth even though we've only seen average (instead of well-above-average) rain:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Lush Cover Crop

It appears that January is continuing with more of the same pattern. Last night brought another half-inch of rain, and there are two more small storms in the 10-day forecast, though nothing that looks like it's going to really dump on us. As long as we get these periodic smaller storms, that's just fine. We do need it to stay wet in January (typically our wettest month of the year, at an average of 5.81" of rain) because it accounts for nearly a quarter of our annual total. Our core rainy season is just four months, with December through March accounting for 78% of our total rainfall since we installed our weather station in 1996. If we don't get our moisture then, it's hard to make it up later.

We are a long way from worrying about oversaturation; there's no water flowing yet in Las Tablas Creek, and while the larger creeks and rivers have had a little water in them in the immediate aftermath of the storms, they're a long way from the steady flows that we saw well into spring in 2023. That said, the soils are deep brown and wet down through the root zones of both grapevines and cover crop. And water-loving plants (and fungi) are having a field day:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Mushrooms

A priority for us at this time of year is doing everything we can to encourage the absorption of the rain that falls and discourage runoff. One of the techniques that we use is keyline plowing. This ancient technique prescribes digging deep furrows in alternate rows of our dry-farmed blocks, keeping roughly perpendicular to the slope. These furrows slow the downhill flow of water and encourage absorption instead of runoff. What's more, because these furrows cut through the layers but don't turn the soil over, the disruption that they provide to the soil networks is minimal. A photo of our Scruffy Hill block is a great example:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Scruffy Hill

So if the soils are so nice and wet, why are we hoping for regarding additional rain? Well, there are two reasons. First, the calcareous soils here in west Paso Robles have a tremendous capacity to absorb, store, and transport water to deeper layers. Additional rain will help recharge the underground rivers and lakes (and everyone's wells). Second, wet soils have a greater capacity to stay cool compared to drier soils, and rising soil temperatures is one of the most important factors in determining the date of bud break. Rain well into March last year helped keep our vines dormant longer than we've seen in any of our drier seasons, and every week that the vines stay dormant through March and April measurably reduces our risk from spring frosts.

But that's a worry for the future. For now, we'll glory in the lovely green growth we're seeing everywhere, the blue skies overhead during this period between storm systems, and feel great about a season that has so far felt benign. After all the excitement of the last two years, we'd be happy with a little bit of boring.

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Long View

The brief, lovely season with the last of the fall colors and the first shoots of green

You can feel the weather changing as we exit November. The dry offshore winds and the extreme diurnal shifts of the early part of the month are just a memory. In its place we've got weak low pressure systems in the Pacific, regular cloud cover overhead, and mornings damp enough that we have to check the rain gauge to know if it rained overnight or if that was just the fog. We haven't had a lot of rain yet -- just one storm the weekend before Thanksgiving that dropped about an inch and a half -- but you can feel it coming.

And we're in the brief, beautiful season where we've got the last of the fall colors on the vines and the first of the winter’s green grass coming up. Yesterday, that combined with ground fog lifting and rain-heavy clouds rolling in to make for stunning vistas everywhere you turned:

Fog lifting - over Crosshairs

The vines themselves are lovely, but the view from the center of the vineyard, over our biodynamic plantings, was just as impressive in a different color palette:

Fog lifting - Biodynamic plantings

And even the drive in was majestic. I felt like I was in a movie:

Fog lifting - Vineyard Drive

The rain we got was a perfect amount to get the cover crop germinated, without being so much to give us any worries about erosion. The shoots of grass soften the landscape, like an oil painting's subtle wash of Cadmium green under the autumn yellows and browns:

Fog lifting - green grass

The earth, where you can see it, turns a lovely dark brown, as in this young Mourvedre block near the top of our tallest hill:

Fog lifting - in Santos Block

Harvest finished recently enough that there are still ample second crop clusters, particularly on Grenache, just waiting to provide tasty snacks for the sheep when they get let back into the vineyard: 

Fog lifting - second crop

The vines still have their leaves because we've only dropped below freezing a couple of times, and never gotten cold enough to really force them into dormancy. That means that you can identify the different blocks by their autumn tones, from the ocher of Roussanne in the foreground, to the brick red of Tannat in the middle, to the yellow of young Grenache and Syrah on the hillside right and the varied colors of older Muscardin and Bourboulenc vines to the left of the straw-covered farm road: 

Fog lifting - over New Hill

I'll leave you with probably my favorite photo of the morning's ramble, looking south down from our oldest Counoise block, with terraced Syrah vines on the right, and rows of Roussanne vines behind leading down to Las Tablas Creek and the fog-shrouded, oak-covered hillsides beyond.

Fog lifting - looking south over Counoise and Syrah

We know we won't have long with this landscape. One hard freeze (possible as soon as this weekend) will put an end to the fall colors, while the green of winter takes over. And that is lovely too. But this transitional season, with its rich, warm colors and softer edges, feels fleeting and special. We'll enjoy it while we can.

Knowing rain is on the way makes our brief, lovely autumn all the more special

It's always a shock when daylight savings ends, and I realize it's already dark as I wrap up my work day. But there are rewards of having the sun set while I'm still at work, not least that I can look out my office window, realize that the light is breathtaking, and grab my phone and head out to the vineyard. I did that yesterday and got some shots that I loved. First, a photo of Sadie (who turns 9 today) prowling through my beauty shot. The aura of light makes it look like I photoshopped her into the picture, but I didn't.

Sadie in the sunset

The low sun angles brings out the autumn colors in the vines. A different view of the vineyard block above, looking south over the Syrah and Roussanne instead of west, shows the warm yellows and oranges that join the green in this season.

Autumn Syrah and Roussanne

I got another view that highlights the fall colors looking downhill through our oldest Counoise block (also the oldest Counoise block in California):

Autumn Counoise

I sometimes feel like I've taken every picture there is to take here, but I got a perspective I've never noticed before, with the sun at my back silhouetting one of our big valley oak trees against the warm colors of an old Grenache block. I'm not sure there is a more "Paso Robles in autumn" shot than this one:

Oak silhouette on Grenache

I got up on top of the ridge you see in the above photo and was able to get a photo of the sun setting where there was also enough light to illuminate the Grenache vines in the foreground:

Sunset over Syrah and Grenache

We've started shifting our focus from bringing in our grapes (there's only a little Roussanne left out) to prepping our land for the coming rainy season. This tractor probably isn't going to have any more grapes to haul:

Dramatic tractor

We know we've gotten lucky with frosts. Much of Paso Robles has gotten a few already, with some temperatures down in the mid-20s. That's not an issue for grapevines that have already been picked, but if there's still fruit out, a hard frost will kill off the leaves and mean there won't be any more ripening because photosynthesis is over for the year. At that point, the leaves turn brown and crispy, ready to fall off as the vine transitions into its winter dormancy. Those are the conditions that I see every day looking out my window, as we had a few frosts last week in the Templeton Gap. Now that vineyard -- source of our Full Circle Pinot Noir -- looks ready for winter. Soon, the whole vineyard will:

Pinot with brown leaves
This brief-but-beautiful autumn season will end as soon as we get a hard freeze out at Tablas, which could happen as soon as this weekend. And whether it freezes or not, it looks like we're about to make our transition to winter. The first winter storm of the season is forecast to arrive next Tuesday:

That transition is perfectly timed, from our perspective. We should be done picking this week. We'll have a chance to get cover crop seed down where it needs to go before the rain. We should have a chance to do some keyline plowing to help slow down the surface flow of water and encourage deeper penetration. And the quantities are perfect for a first storm: enough to do more than wet the surface, but not enough to worry about erosion before the cover crop has sprouted.

We feel like since October the 2023 season has played out just as we'd have hoped it would. It seems like that's going to continue for at least a little longer.

Autumn sunset vertical

Harvest 2023 update: a deep exhale as warm weather brings the finish line in sight

Three weeks ago we were all pretty nervous. We'd had the coolest September in our history, and not just by a little. High temperatures were more than 7.5°F cooler than average, which on top of the delayed growing season meant that as the calendar flipped to October we'd only finished about 10% of the harvest off the estate. With el nino brewing in the Pacific, we were facing a real risk of serious rain coming while significant quantities of our fruit were still out on the vine. We were hoping that the warmer weather that began with the onset of October would stick around long enough to have a real impact on the ripening of our grapes and the timeline of our harvest. Spoiler alert: it did.

Harvest chalkboard October 24th

Not only have the last three weeks been warmer than normal, they've been nearly as warm as we'd expect September to be. In essence, the months have flipped places. While September's average high was 80.9°F, since October 1st our average high has been 84°F. This has reversed the trend in Growing Degree Days and brought 2023 back up away from the record-cool years of 2010 and 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023 thru 10-23

Even better, that warm weather has come just the way we prefer it. Although we've had eight days in the 90s, the highest high temperature was just 96.4°F. Both of the warm stretches (October 4th-8th and October 18th-20th) were followed by at least three days that topped out in the 70s. That meant that the grapevines could continue to build sugars without losing their acids and without being under an unhealthy amount of stress. And as often happens when a delayed harvest finally gets some heat, the fruit came rolling in. Most days we've had a lineup of bins in our parking lot, waiting to be processed, as we're running presses of newly-harvested whites and newly-fermented reds. The dance of the forklifts is something to behold.

Bins of grapes everywhere

These harvest days start before sunup and finish after dark, with what seems like endless rounds of washing in between. After all, every tank we have will get used five or six times this year. Every press gets used three or four times each day. And all the equipment gets cleaned up and put away every night. I love this photo I got of Gustavo cleaning the red press today as the sun was setting:

Gustavo washing the press

The fruit that we've been getting, and the young wines that we've been tasting, look tremendous. We're seeing some of the deepest colors we can remember. The grapes have lovely freshness and lift. I spoke to Chelsea last week for an Instagram Live harvest update, and she described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry". Now maybe you have to work in a winery cellar to dream about chemistry at this time of year, but it gives you a sense of the lovely balance of sugars and acids that we're seeing.

We don't have to look far to know that the clock is ticking. The fall foliage colors on the vines, like this Counoise block below, are telling us that the end is near: 

Fall colors in Counoise

Still, the grapes that are still out on the vines are there because they need this time. The two clusters below (Counoise, left, and Roussanne, right) are looking and tasting great, but they're sitting only at about 20° Brix and will benefit from another week or two out in the sun:

Counoise cluster cropped Roussanne cluster

The mornings are usually starting with a little low-lying fog:

Fog lifting between Counoise rows

Walking around the vineyard, there are more blocks where the grapes have already been picked than there are with crop still hanging. That gives us the chance to give some of the younger vines (like this three-year-old Syrah) a little post-harvest drink:

Post-harvest irrigation

We're also giving a little sigh of relief because it looks like yields are significantly recovered from last year. It's most dramatic in the varieties that were frozen last year; we've harvested double the quantity of Grenache Blanc that we did last year and Vermentino is up 49%. But even grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, none of which were impacted by last year's frosts, are seeing crops something like 10% higher than last year. We've already picked 30 more tons of Grenache than we did in 2022, with a couple of blocks still to come. And it seems clear that Roussanne will come in with higher quantity than last year, when it finally gets ripe. Now our biggest unknown is Mourvedre, and when I saw Neil today he sounded more relaxed than he has in weeks. We're no longer worried about whether the fruit will be good, or whether it will get ripe. Now we're just worrying about where we're going to put it. And that's a huge relief.

A Picture Worth 1,000 Words, 2023 Harvest Edition

This morning I was standing on the crushpad talking to Chelsea. I asked her whether the fermentations had started on the grapes we picked last week. She said that they were just getting going, and mentioned that the plan was to bring the barrels outside so that they could benefit from some of the heat when it warms up. Then she looked at the sky, still densely overcast, and corrected herself: "If it warms up."

The overcast did start to break up at lunchtime, though as of 1:30pm it was still as much clouds as sun in the sky and our temperatures were still only in the low-70s. I got a photo I love, looking up from underneath the canopy of our Bourboulenc block toward that still-mostly-cloudy sky:

Overcast September - Under Bourboulenc

In a normal harvest, an overcast day like this would be a rare treat and a chance to catch up after several days of sustained heat. But not in 2023. We haven't had a single 100°F day in the last month, a period in which our average high has been 85.8°F, more than 5°F lower than the long-term average of 91.1°F. We haven't even had a day hit 90°F in the last two weeks. Most of those days have started with several hours of overcast. The full picture since veraison:

Average High Temperatures 2023 vs normal through Sep 17

The next week looks similar, with forecast highs in the upper 70s and lower 80s. And there's no big warm-up coming; today's ag forecast suggests that we're looking at below-average to average temperatures through the end of September.

How big a deal is this? Maybe it's actually a good thing. I know I'd definitely prefer this to hundred-degree temperatures. It's not like it's in the 50s°F and 60s°F every day. The grapevines are photosynthesizing. Sugars are rising, and acids are falling. Even better, acids are falling slowly, which is giving us something like dream chemistry in the samples we're taking. The vines are thriving in this moderate climate, and looking back at previous years (like September 2014, for example) drives home just how much greener the foliage is now than we're used to seeing in September, which bodes well for their ability to withstand this marathon.

What this weather is doing is shifting our risks from the beginning of harvest to the end. At some point, these low pressure troughs that are bringing this overcast weather will start to come with real moisture and rain. If we're still in the middle of picking -- particularly if we're still picking thin-skinned grapes like Grenache -- that could be a problem. If it's chilly during the harvest season, that will likely mean that our fermentations, which are all done with native yeasts, will likely take longer to complete. But that's a problem for future Tablas Creek. For now, we'll take it. And if you're visiting in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.