Dry Farming in California's Drought, Part 3: How We Got Here (and Where We Go Next)

I was struck by a quote from Tegan Passalaqua, the winemaker at Turley, in a recent article on JancisRobinson.com.  In an interview with Alder Yarrow, Tegan said "In a Mediterranean climate like we have, vertical shoot positioning and 3 by 6 vineyard spacing is basically farming hydroponically".

Hydroponic farming, with its overtones of bland supermarket tomatoes, seems an unlikely candidate to provide the intensity and ripeness that a winemaker would expect from California.  But in its essence, that the farmer is providing everything that a plant needs to bear fruit, I don't think he's far off.  It's worth taking a few moments to understand how grapevines came to be so widely irrigated in California.  In the first part of this 3 part series, I looked at how our understanding of California's climate dictated changes versus what had been done in the Mediterranean.  In the second part, I detailed how we have been farming our vineyard since the beginning to wean it off of irrigation, and what changes we've made in recent years to adjust to the likelihood of a drier future.  In this third part, I will explore how viticulture evolved in California to rely so heavily on irrigation.  If you missed the earlier parts, this article will make more sense after you've read them.

According to Jancis Robinson1, wine grapes were likely first domesticated from their wild progenitors somewhere near where modern-day Armenia, eastern Turkey, and north-western Iran meet, sometime before 4000 BC.  That area is a relatively arid climate, averaging around 400mm of rainfall per year (about 16 inches).  There, grapevines, along with similarly rugged crops like olive trees, were planted on dry, rocky hillsides where the more useful grain and vegetable crops couldn't survive.  This took advantage of grapevines' genetic predisposition to search out scarce water sources, delving dozens of feet deep if necessary.

By 2000 BC, wine grapes had been brought to areas around the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, southern Greece, Crete and the southern Balkans.  Expansion to areas north and west came over the next two millennia, brought by the exploring and colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks, and (later) Romans.  

High quality winemaking requires the concentration of flavors, achieved through stress on the grapevines and the maturity of fruit.  This happens naturally in the hot, dry climates where grapevines evolved.  But as viniculture moved north through Europe, into climates cooler and wetter than where wine grapes originated, the grapevines faced different challenges. Instead of not enough water, grapevines were challenged with too much water, threatening to dilute flavors.  And the cooler climes meant that lack of ripeness was a significant threat.  The solution to both these problems came in a new way of planting: spacing vines much more closely, so they competed against each other for the available water, and reducing the yield per vine so that the clusters ripened more rapidly.  For contrast, look at the differences in the old world.  An old vineyard in a warm Mediterranean climate (in the example below, Priorat, taken as a still from a promotional video on the Priorat DOQ Web site) might see grapevines three meters apart or more from their nearest neighbors (500 vines per acre, or less):

Priorat

By contrast, a Burgundian vigneron in search of maximum concentration and character might plant grapevines as close together as one meter by one meter (over 4000 vines per acre), and reduce yields per vine from 20-30 clusters per vine to just 3 or 4.  The example below (from Wikimedia Commons) is of a vineyard near Gevrey-Chambertin, in Burgundy, where vines are so close together a tiny tractor can barely fit:

Vineyards_near_Gevrey-Chambertin_(7309858246)

The net result is a can be a greater yield in tons per acre, with increased intensity and a better chance of getting the grapes ripe before the first frost.

It is perhaps useful to think of a grapevine as a small machine, whose roots act as pumps to wick water and nutrients out of the ground.  A vine's leaves absorb solar energy to power this machine. The water that is pulled from the ground is used during photosynthesis as the vine respires through the pores of the leaves, and is also trapped in the plant's tissues and fruit.  Planting more vines into a given plot of land requires more water for photosynthesis to be successful.  If there is enough (or too much) water, this extra density is beneficial and even important.  If there is not enough water, this extra density requires more irrigation to keep photosynthesis going.  And if irrigation becomes a major source of water for the vines, they change their root system to better capture that water source, growing more rootmass under the irrigation drips and less exploring deeper. 

So, is California's climate more like that of the Mediterranean, or more like that of Burgundy?  It depends on what you look at.  In terms of temperatures, you can find both, as evidenced by the success California's winemaking community has had with a a wide range of grapes, from the cool-loving Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with origins in the north of France) to the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvedre (with origins in the hot, dry Spanish plateau).  But in terms of rainfall, it should be clear that except for perhaps in extreme north and coastal regions, our total precipitation more resembles the warmer, drier Mediterranean. In fact, many parts of California receive significantly less annual rainfall than the classic Mediterranean climate.  Relatively arid areas like Priorat receive more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, and the rainfall distribution in Paso Robles actually looks more like the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon than it does like Priorat, let alone anywhere in France.  The fact that we receive nearly all our precipitation in the six-month period between November and April only adds to the stress on the vines, and the need for planning if we're going to try to grow grapes without having them dependent upon regular irrigation.

You might wonder why plantings of grapevines in California look more like those in Northern Europe than they do like those of the Mediterranean.  That they do is a relatively recent phenomenon.  A paper on vine spacing presented to the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) in 1999 by two winemakers from Robert Mondavi Winery makes for fascinating reading.  Before the late 1980's, most vineyards in California were planted at around 450 vines per acre.  The first large-scale (35 acre) high-density (2170 vines/acre) planting came in Oakville in 1985.  Since then, the paradigm has shifted rapidly, as winemakers found that they could translate the higher density into earlier-ripening, more reliably yielding crops of good intensity.

The downside? It hasn't seemed like there was much of one. More reliable yields, more reliable ripening, and increased intensity all seem like a good thing.  If I find that many of the wines that come from high-density irrigated plantings have a sameness, a fruit-driven thickness and relative lack of soil expression, this doesn't seem to be a complaint shared by many.  And separating out the preference for increasingly ripe flavors that developed over a similar timeframe is difficult (many connoisseurs of Bordeaux, where irrigation is prohibited, have described a similar development over the last two decades). But these higher-density crops can only survive in most parts of California through the regular application of irrigation.  When that irrigation water was cheaply and easily available, the fact that our natural rainfall distribution more resembles the Eastern Mediterranean than Burgundy or Bordeaux didn't seem to matter much. From an environmental standpoint, planting an irrigated vineyard was often a responsible choice for a farmer, as the high efficiency of drip irrigation and the relatively little water that grapevines need compared to a crop like alfalfa offered sustainability in both resource use and economics. But with all of California's agricultural communities engaging in a new level of soul-searching after four years of drought, it's clear to me that the calculus is changing.

Perhaps the solution for a drier future begins with a look at the past.  The old vineyards planted by immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which survived decades of neglect during prohibition and continue to produce a century later, were planted with the densities common to the warm Mediterranean climates (from where, of course, most of the settlers came).  Given our success in recent years replicating these older planting styles, I would hope that one benefit to come out of our current drought will be a renewed interest in low density plantings on deep-rooting rootstocks, requiring at most a fraction of the water of "modern" vineyards. That the wines have turned out to be so good is icing on the cake. 

It doesn't get more sustainable than that.

Footnotes
1 Jancis Robinson's "Wine Grapes" (Penguin Books, 2012) is an incredible resource for anyone interested in the history or characteristics of different grape varieties.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 2: Looking Forward to the Past

In the first part of this 3-part series on farming in California's drought, I looked at how our climate here in California differs in crucial ways from that in the Mediterranean, and what lessons we took from these differences in how we would choose to farm.  In this second part, I pick the story back up with how we planted and trained our vines in the early days to allow us to dry-farm them now, and what changes we've made in recent years as we adjust to what is likely to be a drier future.  The third part is more historical, looking at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California.  If you missed Part 1, go read it now.  OK, welcome back.

In the Beginning

When we began planting, we used a hybrid of the planting methods of modern California and the traditional Rhone.  At Beaucastel, vines are planted head-trained but closely spaced on their relatively flat terrain.  They cultivate these vineyards using tall over-the-vines tractors as the spacing (roughly 1.5 meters square) doesn't allow tractors to pass in-between.  On our steep hillsides, these tractors wouldn't work, so we matched the overall vine density, but moved the vines into rows, planting more closely within the rows (3 feet) and spacing the rows either 8 feet or 10 feet apart, depending on our terrain. We achieve a similar vine density at around 1600-1800 vines per acre, but can cultivate mechanically, essential for our organic techniques:

Tournesol Tractor

Our decision to plant at similar density to Beaucastel was grounded in our initial belief that in our broadly similar environment we should use the techniques that they had developed over the years as a starting point, and then learn from our experiences here and adjust gradually over time.  

The first choice we needed to make was what rootstocks to use. Wine grapes need to be grafted onto rootstocks to be resistant to the root parasite phylloxera.  These rootstocks are descended from different species of American wild grapes, and have inherited differences in level of vigor, rooting configuration, tolerance for soil chemistry, and affinity for various varietals from their progenitors. [For a good technical overview of rootstock science, see this piece in Wines&Vines.]  

Modern fashion in relatively water-rich areas (including Napa Valley, which has a fairly stable water table on the valley floor) suggests the use of low-vigor, shallow-rooting rootstocks, to keep the vines from growing too much canopy and from setting high quantities of low-intensity fruit.  But it was clear to us that we should focus instead on higher-vigor, deeper rooting rootstocks because of the high-stress nature of our climate and topography.  We chose deep-rooting, relatively high-vigor rootstocks to graft to (principally 110R and 1103P).

Our next decision was if and how to irrigate the blocks we would be planting. After speaking to local growers, it became clear to us that in order to get our young vines through the dry summer months, we would need to be able to irrigate at least in the early years.  Grapevine roots grow down fairly rapidly, about a foot and a half per year when the vines are young, slowing as they age.  To determine the length of time we'd need to supplement, we did some trench cuts in the vineyard, digging down a dozen feet through the topsoil and the top layers of limestone, to see where the water was by late summer.  These showed that even with the water-holding capabilities of our calcium-rich soils, we needed to dig down 6-8 feet to find layers that still had moisture in September.  So, we figured we would need to irrigate for the first five or so years, if all went well, and if we were able to encourage the deep root growth that would eventually allow us to get the bulk of the root mass down where water could be found.

Our technique was infrequent but deep irrigation.  This should be intuitive.  Grapevine roots grow where water is present.  If you water frequently but shallowly, roots continue to grow near the surface, where water can be found.  If the only water to be found is deep, roots grow deep.  Watering infrequently (twice per summer, and eventually only once) but deeply causes the soil to dry out from the top down in between waterings, and encourages root growth in the deeper areas that have moisture.

It didn't work as smoothly as we had originally hoped.  We lost so many vines to gopher predation that we had to replant in some cases as much as 25% of our blocks with young vines.  These vines needed to be irrigated when they were young, and even longer, as they grew more slowly due to competition from the older vines nearby.  It wasn't until the wet years of 2005 and 2006 that we felt able to wean our established blocks entirely from supplemental irrigation, but when we did, we were rewarded by consecutive great vintages.

Now, we feel that our older blocks are able to go not just through a normal rainfall winter without needing to be supplemented, but can go one year into a drought cycle (as in the 2012 vintage) without needing additional water.  When we get multiple years into a drought, as we have been since 2013, we are able to supplement, again using the infrequent but deep watering that will discourage the vines from the bad habits of excessive shallow root growth.  We supplemented most blocks once in 2013 and twice during the 2014 vintage, and feel that these are going to be two of our greatest vintages ever.

Recent Adjustments

In addition to the continuing work that we've done easing our original plantings toward water self-sufficiency, the last decade has seen us look to even older models to plant vineyard in ways that won't need to be supplemented even in droughts.  As early as 2000, we had planted some of our low-lying blocks in relatively deep soils head-trained, dry-farmed.  These areas most resembled, to our minds, the terrain at Beaucastel.  We also looked at old vineyards in the Paso Robles area, many of which date back to the years before Prohibition.  These vines, mostly Zinfandel, were head-trained and widely spaced, and had made it nearly a century still in high quality production.  Our first block that we planted in this manner was the small block of Mourvedre near our front entrance, just to the east of where our tasting room is currently located.  We spaced the vines 8 feet apart in a square pattern (a density of 680 vines per acre).  A recent view of this block (with the vines and their solar panel backdrop) shows how well established they've become in the last 15 years:

Mourvedre with solar panels behind

The success of these never-irrigated vines encouraged us to plant most of our former rootstock fields in this manner between 2003 and 2005.  Though these worked well too, we weren't sure yet whether we could translate these successes to hillside blocks with less topsoil and less water.  In the end, it was the logistical challenge of getting well water pumped to our one block on the south (opposite) side of Tablas Creek that pushed us to give it a shot.  We planted that thirteen-acre block, which we call Scruffy Hill, head-trained and dry-farmed in 2006 and 2007. Scruffy Hill presented some new challenges.  It was (is) one of our most rugged blocks, on a very steep slope, with at the top just a foot or so of topsoil.  Cultivation was also going to be a problem, with slopes as steep as 35% making it unsafe to cultivate across the hills, so after speaking with locals we decided on a 12 foot by 12 foot diamond pattern, reducing the vine density to about 340 vines per acre and creating two mostly-vertical avenues we could use to cross-cultivate safely.  We weren't comfortable leaving these vines to fend for themselves entirely, so we bought several 5-gallon plastic buckets, drilled a small hole in the bottom of each, and then used our water truck to give each vine a single bucket of water in the late summer in years one and two. Scruffy hill is now thriving:

Scruffy Hill 2

We've also been experimenting with our rootstocks. The rootstocks that we have used, from the beginning, have needed to be relatively high in vigor and tolerant of Calcium.  This has meant that we use predominantly 1103-P and 110-R.  In recent years, we've planted a few blocks of Grenache on the famously deep-rooting St. George rootstock, the standard in California before irrigation, though in more recent decades largely replaced by lower-vigor, more shallow-rooted crosses.  We are hopeful that these experiments will allow us to develop healthier, more vigorous vineyards without needing supplemental irrigation.

The Upshot: Forward to the Past

All told, in the last decade we've planted over 30 acres head-trained, dry-farmed, in the manner vineyards would have been planted (per force) a century ago.  And while it may not be intuitive, in our recent dry years, the vines in these blocks have shown less signs of stress, and the production from these blocks has declined less, than in our trellised blocks.  But perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that 340 vines in a dry-farmed acre can thrive with the roughly 15 inches of rain we've received each of the last four winters, while the 1800 vines planted in a trellised acre really need something closer to the 28 inches that is our average.  While a 24-hour irrigation session can keep them going through a dry summer, it's still not making up the difference between a normal rainfall winter and what we've averaged during our drought.

Would we make the same commitment to dry-farming if we needed 4 or more tons per acre off of our vineyard?  Perhaps not.  Our dry-farmed blocks tend to produce between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre, even in the most productive years. But given that we're only aiming for between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre even from our trellised blocks, we're not sacrificing much production.  And given how much less expensive it is to plant, prune, cultivate and thin 340 vines per acre than it is to do the same work on 1800, it may not be costing us more per pound of fruit even with the lower yields.

Even more important, the quality of the wine lots from these dry-farmed vines has been among the best in the cellar both of the last two years. Take into account that these are still among our youngest blocks and you can see why we feel it's a win-win situation for us, and why we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- this way over the next decade.

So, if we're so happy with these old-fashioned techniques, how did the paradigm in California become so dependent on irrigation?  I explore the history in part 3.


Dry-Farming in California's Drought, Part 1: Understanding California's Only-Sorta-Mediterranean Climate

Over the last few months, it seems like everyone I meet, whether locally or around the country, is wondering how we're doing in what our governor has termed a "historic drought".  Many are surprised to hear that while we're watching it warily, we think we're in OK shape.  And even more are surprised to learn that a critical reason why we think we're OK is that we've been increasingly investing in dry farming over recent years.  It seems counter-intuitive that farming without irrigation makes you better able to survive periods with less rainfall, but it is, we think, an important part of the answer.  In this three-part series, I'll look at California's drought from our perspective.  This first part will look at the differences between the Mediterranean climate and our climate here in California, and what lessons we took from that.  The second part looks both at how our original approach to farming has set our vineyard up to succeed through the last four dry years and what we're changing to adjust to what will likely be a drier future.  Finally, the third part looks back historically at how grapevines -- which should be one of the easier crops to dry-farm -- came to be so widely irrigated in California. 

We are, of course, inspired by Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the home of our founding partners at Beaucastel.  In Chateauneuf, as in most top winemaking regions in France, irrigation is prohibited.  This prohibition is enforced to prevent dilution and overproduction, and to encourage deeper rooting which should help wines express their region's terroir.  We came into our project believing that dry-farming would give us our best chance to express our terroir, although we were unsure whether we would be able to right away.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape receives, on average, 723mm (28 inches) of rain per year. The distribution is relatively constant, except for somewhat drier summers and somewhat wetter falls. Still, it can rain any time during the year. The chart below (which I found, along with the data above, on the useful site climate-data.org) shows the distribution of rainfall by month, with January (01) on the left and December (12) on the right:

Climate-graph-cdp

Our area west of Paso Robles has received historically a similar amount of precipitation annually (about 28 inches) but it is much more heavily weighted toward winter, with May-October almost entirely dry:

Avg Rainfall by month at Tablas Creek

(Note that if you're looking at statistics for Paso Robles, you'll see that the town averages 14 inches of rain.  However, our weather station, here 12 miles west of town, has recorded over the last decade almost exactly double the rainfall measured in town, with very similar distribution.)

Otherwise, the climate is broadly similar, though somewhat more extreme here.  Average temperatures are a touch cooler here in summer and fall because of our cool nights, and a touch warmer in winter, because of our warm days.  Year-round we have a larger diurnal shift (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) than does Chateauneuf, which produces more frosty winter nights and a greater chance of spring freezes, but also ensures that we maintain good acids during the growing season.  We receive a bit more sun.

Still, the primary difference between the two places, and the one that requires us to adjust most, is the distribution of the rainfall. We knew that we had chosen soils that were primarily calcareous clay, renowned for their water-holding capacity.  But still, it was clear to us that while we had enough rainfall on an annual basis to support dry-farmed grapevines, we would need to figure out how to get them through a five-month dry spell unlike anything they see in the Rhone Valley.  

What did we do?  Check out part 2.


Wildflowers in the Vineyard: More Than Just Pretty Faces

By Lauren Cross

Thanks to the late rainstorms we had recently, it is now wildflower season here at Tablas Creek!  One of the many benefits of our organic and biodynamic property is the prolific wildlife that lives symbiotically throughout the vineyard. We leave sections of the vineyard to our native vegetation because of the insect and microbial life these plants support, and these section, particularly, burst into flower in April and May. Guests to our upcoming spring festivals are in for a treat!  I took a long hike through the vineyard and was happy to find dozens of unique wildflowers.  Here are a few of my favorite photos.

DSC_2209_edit_1000

I found this first pea flower in the cover crop near the lambing barn.  It is so exciting to see all of the tall crops between the vines- a few months back before the rain storms there was just bare soil and now the cover crop and flowers reach almost four feet!

DSC_2244_edit_1000

I found this tall buttercup flower blowing in the breeze farther in the vineyard behind the old nursery greenhouses.

DSC_2249_edit_1000

Finding this flowering Salvia was the best surprise of the day.  It was nestled in under an oak tree just passed the gate into our new unplanted property. 

DSC_2217_edit_1000

 I love the intricacies of this wild Primrose with the delicate white star shaped center. 

DSC_2202_edit_1000

The bees are happy it is wildflower season too! The California poppy it's feasting on is our state flower, and always our most visible sign of spring.

DSC_2296_edit_1000

This thistle is my favorite shot of the day.  I love the texture and how the flower is just beginning to open up.  It reminds me of the 2014 vintage just beginning in the vineyard: new growth just before flowering and all of that potential just waiting to be realized.


Why "California's Driest Year on Record" is less serious (and more) than you're hearing

As January 2014 dawned, California residents were greeted with a collection of terrifying headlines about the lack of rain the state received in 2013.  The Weather Channel posted a national story titled "Record Driest Year in California, Parts of Oregon". The San Francisco Chronicle warned "After dry spell, get ready for water restrictions" while the LA Times editorialized "LA's driest year: Time to shut off the lawn sprinklers for good".  The Huffington Post plays it straight "2013 Is California's Driest Year On Record" while the Wall Street Journal reported "California Stretched by Worsening Drought".  A map published by the NOAA showed nearly all of California under some water stress, while a large swath (inconveniently centered around Paso Robles) was under "Extreme Drought":

NOAA Drought Map

The data from our weather station at Tablas Creek bears this out.  In all of 2013, we received 3.71 inches of rain.  That's just 13% of what we consider our normal rainfall of 28 inches, and easily the least in a calendar year since we started keeping records in 1997.  The story in areas east of us is worse: the weather station at J. Lohr, in the Paso Robles Estrella River heartland, totaled just 1.93 inches in 2013.

Why it's not as bleak as it seems
So, why is this story not as bleak as it looks? It all looks much worse because of how the rain we've received the last two winters falls on the calendar.  The rainy season in California doesn't follow the yearly calendar; it starts in November and goes through April.  This season largely corresponds to winter, when agricultural crops like grapevines are dormant.  A grapevine doesn't care whether the rainfall arrives early or late in the dormant season; it's not going to start using that water until it sprouts in the spring.  So looking at how much rain fell between January 2013 and April 2013 (some 2.35 inches at Tablas Creek) and ignoring the fact that November and December 2012 were unusually wet (11.74 inches) gives a false picture of both what last winter was like and what the growing conditions are now.

Similarly, the winter of 2011-12 was characterized by late rain: more than two-thirds of the 15 inches of rain that we received that winter came in 2012.  Between the late rain that winter and the early rain the following winter, it looks like 2012 was an about average rainfall year, with just under 23 inches of rain out here, when in fact both the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 provided roughly half of normall rainfall.

So, while a headline like "13% of annual rainfall" makes for good copy, the situation on the ground is more nuanced.  We've had two consecutive low-rainfall but hardly bone-dry winters in the books, and we're in the middle of what looks like another dry --maybe even very dry -- winter.  That's plenty bad enough, but not unprecedented.

Why it may be worse than it seems
So why is the situation worse than it seems?  We're not sure whether our historical norms are still what we should expect on average.  We're in our 15th winter since 1999-2000, and in those winters, we've only seen four seasons with above-average rainfall (2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10, and 2010-11).  Two others (1999-2000 and 2007-2008) saw more or less average rainfall.  That leaves nine years with 60% or less of normal rainfall, raising the question of what normal rainfall actually is for us now.

Most models of climate change suggest that rising global temperatures will result in drier conditions in the American southwest, including California.  The EPA's Climate Change Center concludes that "human-induced climate change will likely result in more frequent and more severe droughts" in the our area.  Both the EPA's low-emission and high-emission models project for significant declines in California precipitation over the 21st century:

SouthwestPrecipChange-large

Drought is by nature a cyclical phenomenon.  But whether the current three-year dry pattern breaks this spring, next year, or later (and we're definitely hoping for sooner than later) it seems inevitable that we're entering a period where even relatively wet areas like ours will suffer more frequent and more prolonged periods of low rainfall, with all the attendant stresses on ground water supplies and growing tensions between agriculture, housing and recreation.

What to do?
How a vineyard is developed determines to a great extent the amount of water it needs each year to remain healthy and productive.  The more closely spaced grapevines are, the more support they will need each year.  This suggests that the old-school California vineyards planted before widespread irrigation are a model worth studying.  These vineyards were planted at very low density by modern standards, often as much as 12 feet by 12 feet apart (rather than the current norm of 3 feet by 8 feet).  We've been planting recent blocks -- such as our head-trained, dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block, pictured below -- using this old-fashioned vine density, and are cautiously optimistic about the results.  Sure, we're not going to get 4 tons per acre, but that's not what we want anyway.  We're seeing acceptable yields (2 to 2.5 tons per acre) and excellent vine health without irrigation over the last two dry years.

Scruffy Hill

Other vineyard techniques that we've been using and expect to see more widely adopted in coming years include deep ripping of the soils before the rainy season, to encourage water to penetrate rather than run off, switching from more frequent but shorter-duration irrigation to less-frequent but longer-duration irrigation to encourage deeper root growth and better vine self-sufficiency, and greater exploration of higher-vigor, deeper-rooting rootstocks instead of the lower-vigor, more shallow-rooting rootstocks that are the most common today.

Even if "California's Driest Year on Record" is a bit of a statistical fluke, it's clear that it's dry here and likely to get drier.  Anyone who is not planning now for that future is courting disaster.


Winterizing the vineyard as we wait and hope for rain

By Levi Glenn

The falling leaves mark the commencement of the “slow time” of the year in the vineyard. Harvest is in the rear-view mirror. All the grapes have been fermented and the wines are resting comfortably in their respective vessels, yet one last series of tasks needs to be completed. We have come to call this winterization, and it has nothing to do with new wiper blades or antifreeze. Our tasks include ripping the soil, discing, applying compost, seeding cover-crop, and spreading straw bales. In a normal year it’s a race against the clock. The rain usually arrives at some point in November (we’ve only received 0.59 inches so far), after which it becomes a lot harder to get our tractors into the vineyard. With the tractors darting around the property, it can almost look choreographed. One tractor will broadcasting compost, a second closely behind with a disc to incorporate the compost and aerate the soil, and a third tractor bringing up the rear with seed drill to sow our cover-crop. It takes us close to a month to finish it all up, and that’s when we can really sit down and take a breather.

On a good portion of our vineyard we use our Yeomans Plow. This consists of a three-shank ripper and a roller behind it. There seems to be no end to benefits of this tool. We use it to break-up soil compaction, which is caused mostly by our long, dry summers, but contributed to by our tractorsand even the winter rainfall, depending on the physical composition of the soil. It simultaneously aerates the root zone allowing the roots to breathe and spread more easily, and it trims surface roots forcing the roots to grow downwards instead of into the row middles (allowing us to dry-farm more effectively). On our steepest head trained, dry-farmed blocks we also use it for erosion control. By ripping across the hill, any run-off that may occur sinks down the trenches left by the shanks, allowing us to retain water rather than having it run off down hill. The only drawback to this tool is the amount of rock that it pulls out of the soil, that we then have to remove by hand. The Yeomans has become an invaluable tool in the vineyard.

V56
The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

Ripped 2
Newly ripped ground in a young dry-farmed Grenache block

Organic compost is at the very center of our nutritional program at Tablas Creek Vineyard. For many blocks this is the only fertilization they receive for the entire year. Our application rates vary from 2-5 tons/acre. This may sound like a huge amount, but an acre is a big area, and as you walk behind the spreader you can see only a scattering of compost on the ground. We make around 100 tons of compost each year from own property. We collect all the vine prunings from the vineyard and run them through a wood chipper, then throw in all the pomace from the winemaking process, and lastly add green waste from tree trimming. All of these ingredients are put into a pile and turned every couple months. Microbes in the raw materials break down all this organic matter into compost, which takes close to a year to finish. We can’t make enough compost ourselves, so we purchase another 250 tons from organic sources to supplement our own. The compost gives the plants a little boost of nitrogen, which helps their growth, but just as importantly introduces an immense quantity of microbes. Even better, compost has a time-release effect, and not all the nutrition will be used up right away. This year’s compost will feed the vines for 3 years, and since we apply every year, the vines receive a compounding effect.

Trekker spreader
A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

Pile
50 Tons of newly delivered organic compost.

Throughout the whole estate vineyard we seed cover-crop. We use a seed drill, which creates a small furrow in the soil and drops a selected amount of the seed a couple inches below the soil surface. The seed mixes we use are mostly made up of legumes, but also have some barley and other grasses. Legumes have the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and process it and actually put it back into the soil. The grasses are mostly for erosion control. As the seeds start to germinate, their roots penetrate into the soil and help hold onto the little topsoil that we have. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of cover cropping is harnessing the immense amount of greenery that grows between the vine rows. Once we till this cover crop back into the soil in the spring we increase the percentage of organic matter in our soil. Organic matter improves soil nutrition, water holding capacity, microbial activity and soil structure. Increasing organic matter in soil is what farmers refer to as “building soil”. With different seed mixes we get different flowers that bloom and attract good bugs, and the more species of plants the more diversity of microbes we have in our soil.  A side-benefit is that a cover-crop allows us to choose the plants that grow in the winter, and cut down on invasive and troublesome species of weeds such as yellow starthistle.

Seed mix Seed bag
Left, a handful of cover-crop seed. The round ones are legumes and the oval ones are grasses.  Right, organic Soil-Max seed mix

Cover popping
Newly-germinated cover crop in January 2013

Cat + seeder
A Catapilar D-6 with a large seed drill on our new property

We only have one last thing to do before we are fully buttoned-down for winter. On the steeper dirt access roads between vineyard blocks, winter rainfall can cause serious erosion problems, but plowing across the slope or planting with cover crops aren't really feasible. So we spread straw in a thin layer across these areas. The straw slows down the water, and helps distribute the force of the heavy rainfall. Only the steepest of spots are in jeopardy. Once it rains a couple times, grass germinates and grows up through the straw, further reinforcing these sensitive areas.

Straw
Standing at the top of New Hill, straw in place. December 2012

Straw 2
Straw protecting the avenue between the French grenache and Mt. Mourvedre from erosion. January 2013

Just a week ago we finished up with all of our various winterization tasks. The winter slumber can now begin. It's on to building more rock walls and waiting for the rain. Even with average rainfall from here on out, we will most likely still suffer some drought conditions in 2014. As of today we are at just 16% of normal rainfall. This is making most growers quite axious right now, in a time that would usually be the more restful. It wont be until February that our next big task of pruning begins. Hopefully between now and then all of our erosion control efforts actully get put to use. In any case, the rest will be much appreciated.


Wine on tap: an idea whose time has (finally) come

In 2010, I wrote a blog post with the title "the appeal of wine in keg, and an appeal to the restaurants who want it".  In it, I lamented that despite keg wine's appeal in terms of freshness, cost savings and environmental responsibility, there hadn't been enough adoption around a single standard to allow a producer like us to even know what sort of keg to buy, let alone to put the infrastructure in place to economically get empty kegs back to us after a restaurant has finished with the wine.

Kegs_0002

Fast forward three years.  This year, we'll sell over 500 cases of wine in keg, split between our three Patelin wines.  Next year, we're projecting that we'll increase that to 1200 cases.  It's still a small portion of our overall production but between the explosive growth, the fact that every ounce of this wine is being poured by the glass, and the fact that it's the coolest new restaurants and wine bars that are choosing to install keg systems, it's one of the most exciting developments in our business in recent years.  All that on top of the benefits that I identified three years ago:

  • Freshness: The wine that is poured out of a keg is replaced by an inert gas, which means that it doesn't oxidize.  If the number of by-the-glass wines I order that are oxidized is indicative, there are an awful lot of wines out there not showing to the winery's (or to the restaurant's) advantage.
  • Waste: Restaurants expect to dump out the unused ends of most opened bottles at the end of each night, and the rest of any bottle that's been open multiple days.  This adds up; restaurants I've spoken to estimate they may waste 25% or more of their glass pours this way.  Keg wines are good down to their last pour.
  • Sustainability: The bottles, capsules, corks and labels that help preserve, identify and market a wine between barrel and glass are temporary enclosures, that will be discarded when the bottle is consumed.  That's a lot of resources tied up in something whose only purpose is to be used and thrown away (or recycled).  Kegs eliminate it all, and when empty are returned to be washed and reused.
  • Cost: All that packaging doesn't come free.  We pay on average $22 per case to package our Patelin de Tablas wines.  Sure, you have to buy (or rent) kegs, but the cost is less than the cost of the equivalent packaging, assuming you have a reliable way of getting the kegs back.

The industry has standardized around 18.9 liter (essentially 5 gallon) stainless steel kegs, hooked up to tap systems that replace the wine that's poured out of the keg with a mix of Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide.  This inert gas protects the remaining wine from oxygenation, but is different from a beer kegging system in that the contents are not under pressure.  Each keg contains the equivalent volume to 26 bottles of wine, which means that for the 240 kegs we've sold so far this year we've avoided having to produce, ship and discard some 6240 bottles, labels and capsules, as well as the cardboard for 520 case boxes and inserts.  That's good both for the environment and for our bottom line.

It hasn't been an easy road here.  In 2011 and 2012, when we began to keg our Patelin wines for California accounts, we did it all in house.  We set aside a volume of each wine at bottling time, stored in stainless steel barrels, bought a supply of kegs, filled them here and shipped the first batch off to Regal WIne Company, who distributes our wines in California.  So far, easy.  But it turned out that even  with Regal's enthusiastic support it was difficult to get the supply chain to work in reverse, and impossible to get ahead of the growth curve economically.

First, the supply chain issues.  All the shipping infrastructure for California wine is designed to take product away from a winery and bring it first to a distributor warehouse and then to restaurant and retail accounts.  Regal had to install a tracking system, charge a keg deposit to accounts that ordered the kegs, and train their delivery team (and their restaurant buyers) to return empty kegs after their contents had been poured out.  Then we needed to wait until a critical mass of empty kegs had been returned to Regal and schedule a truck to go pick them up.  The kegs, by this time, had accumulated various delivery and return stickers on them and needed more than a simple washing to get them in shape for the next filling and delivery: old labels and delivery instructions needed to be scraped off with razors, the kegs needed to be disassembled and sterilized, and then reassembled and filled by hand.  The process took the two members of the cellar team the better part of a day for 25 kegs, which not only eliminated our cost savings from the foregone packaging, but was also difficult or impossible in busy stretches of harvest.

Second, the growth curve.  We found that for every new account that started pouring Tablas Creek by the glass, we needed to buy about 6 more kegs: one currently on tap, two empty but either not yet returned to the distributor or accumulating at the distributor and not yet returned to us, one full and in the wings at the restaurant for when the tapped keg is empty, and then two in inventory waiting for the reorder, since if Regal couldn't guarantee some continuity in inventory, the accounts mostly couldn't justify changing their menus.  Each empty, new keg cost us around $120.  We passed along about $20 of the roughly $40 in savings from eliminated packaging, lowering the price by $20 and using the other $20 to cover costs of purchasing, cleaning, filling and shipping kegs.  The problem was that kegs weren't being sold, poured, and returned to us fast enough to amortize their purchase cost before we needed to purchase more kegs to meet the new demand.  We had counted on the average time between fillings for a keg being around 90 days, which meant that we'd make back the cost of each new keg in a year and a half.  In reality, it averaged around 180 days, doubling the amortization period.  And our shipping costs, to pay for trucks to bring empty kegs back here and (once refilled) back up to the distributor, ended up higher than expected.

Finally, the system that we'd developed was never going to work outside of California.  If it was tough getting kegs back to us in a timely and economical manner in-state, from our largest distributor with whom we have a wonderful working relationship, it was clear that it was never going to work out-of-state, where the volumes of wine we sell are an order of magnitude less than in California and where the shipping distances are longer.

Enter Free Flow Wines.  This company is the brainchild of Jordan Kivelstadt and Dan Donahoe, and is the first serious attempt to apply economies of scale to the logistical challenges of selling wine in keg.  They work with about 100 wineries, who send Free Flow their wine in bulk, rent kegs from Free Flow's large inventory, and then outsource the keg filling to the experts there.  Free Flow has a working relationship with over 100 distributors, and will sign out ordered kegs to these distributors, track them until their return, and automatically charge and credit keg deposits.  Between the 100 wineries there is critical mass of that makes it economically viable to send a truck to retrieve empty kegs from these often far-flung distributor warehouses.  We started working with Free Flow earlier this year, and kegs have gone from being one of our constant headaches (albeit one that we were willing to deal with for the other benefits we saw) to a channel whose contribution might be as positive for our bottom line as it is for the wine we sell through that channel.

And that wine quality?  Impressive.  How impressive was driven home to us earlier this year when a return shipment of empty kegs included a keg of our 2010 Patelin de Tablas that was only half-empty.  We hadn't sold this wine in at least 9 months at the time, and the keg could have been out as long a 18 months.  Evidently some account took the keg off tap and stashed it somewhere, eventually finding it and returning it to Regal to recoup their keg deposit.  It was with some trepidation that we tapped the keg to see how the wine was tasting, but we needn't have worried.  It tasted like it had come out of a fresh bottle, even most of a year later, not temperature controlled, half-full.  If we'd needed a demonstration of the quality of this storage and service system, that did it.

Now, to the advantages in wine quality, economics, and resource conservation, we can add another: scalability.  It's about time.

Kegs_0001


Alpacas (not Llamas) - The Rock Stars of Biodynamic Farming

By Lauren Cross

One of our alpacas, Freddie Mercury (named after the lead singer of Queen), stood center stage on the front cover of our printed newsletter this summer. Since Freddie's debut on our newsletter, the tasting room has been abuzz with discussion about what really are the differences between llamas and alpacas. Let this article be your guide to understanding what makes Tina (Napoleon Dynamite’s pet llama) different from Freddie Mercury (our alpaca). While both animals share genetic links with their camel ancestors (Camelids from South America), they are truly unique in many ways.

Tina and Freddie

Tina 475

Freddie Mercury and our other four alpacas play an important role in our new biodynamic farming program.  Along with our two donkeys, the alpacas serve as protection for our herd of over forty sheep including fifteen young lambs who are the “lead singers” in maintaining the cover crop while naturally fertilizing and tilling the soil in the vineyard. 

Shorn 475

Freddie Mercury and his family confuse native animals like coyotes who are surprised to encounter relatively large, loud, camel-like animals in the wilderness of western California. According to Levi Glenn, Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, our alpacas love water, they play in the spray of a hose or will jump right into a trough on a hot day.  Usually Freddie Mercury and his family are out in the vineyard working. However, if you’re lucky, you may be able to sneak a quick paparazzi-style photo with our superstar alpacas, like the one below taken this week, after they were moved from exile outside our planted vineyard back into a recently-harvested Viognier block:

Alpaca munching

For additional information on our Biodynamic Farming program please read Levi's blog post: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

Now it’s your turn to take the stage and show your creativity by designing our new TCV t-shirt.  We are seeking submissions of original artwork highlighting our biodynamic program: sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys and/or alpacas.  Be creative and have fun!  Entries will be accepted through October 31st.  To enter a T-shirt design please email me at lauren@tablascreek.com with a pdf file and check our Facebook page for additional information.  The winning designer will receive an insider's tour of the vineyard, winery and (of course) animal operation for themselves and up to 9 of their friends. 

White-t-shirt475

 


Counting sheep (and losing sleep)

By Levi Glenn

Most of my mornings start with counting sheep. You herd that right.

Raising sheep in an area that borders so much wild land means that we have to keep a close eye on the herd. The predators that populate this area are quite formidable, the most dangerous being the mountain lion, followed by bobcats and coyotes. The current herd consists of 40 sheep, so in the morning, even with the security of our movable electric fence, we must make sure that there are in fact 40 still running about. There are various ways we protect the sheep, the most dissuading being the guard donkeys, Fiona and Dottie. Donkeys are quite protective and have a particular disdain for canines. Five alpacas are a second line of defense, watchful and noisy. When we move the animals to a new area to grazing, the electric fence comes with them, which provides another element of protection: 6,000 volts of electricity is a memorable deterrent. We haven't lost a single sheep (knock on wood) but we know that there are things out here that would love a mutton snack. Coyote predation is one of the main reasons that commercial sheep ranching is becoming a rarity in many areas of California. The herd, Dottie in front, in the vineyard this spring:

Animal herd

As cute as the sheep are, they are here to do a job. Our herd removes the unwanted weeds from underneath the vines and within the vine rows. By having them in the vineyard we get a wealth of benefits. It reduces at least two tractor passes in any given block, so a reduction in biodiesel use, total man hours, and tractor repair costs. As they eat, they are simultaneously fertilizing the vineyard, and that nutrient cycling happens without any human effort, reducing the total amount of compost we have to purchase and the labor to apply it. And the time that we spend with the animals in the vineyard gives us another perspective on what else we need to be paying attention to.

The sheep can only be in the vineyard when the vines aren't growing. This period usually extends from mid-November to mid-April, depending in the growing season and how early the winter rainfall arrives. The herd can graze down two acres of vineyard in one week, so in 4 months they can cover 30-40 acres of vineyard. Doing some math shows that one full grown sheep can eat roughly one acre worth of weeds during that timeframe, and a little more math would suggest that a herd of 100 sheep should be the magic number for us to be able to graze them across the whole vineyard each year.

Since the herd can only be in the vineyard for this time, not only do we need to find somewhere else to put the sheep, but also provide something else for them to eat. Every year we plant cover crop in the vineyard rows, and some of those seed mixes contain more legumes and others more grasses. In spring of 2012 we noticed a block that had a particularly tall barley cover crop growing. We harvested the barley by hand, left it to dry in the field, and tied it up into small bundles. We use this to feed when there is no grass left for grazing. It’s a great example of adhering to the single farm unit and trying to produce as much of what we need from our own property.

Fifteen lambs were born at Tablas Creek this year, ten ewe lambs and five ram lambs. The males are usually castrated a few days after birth, as this is the most humane time for this to be done and avoids the problem of them fighting for dominance when they reach adulthood. These males (called wether lambs) can be kept to grow the herd, or can be sold at auction once they reach market weight. Ewe lambs are more valuable since they will become mothers once they reach sexual maturity. This happens from 6 to 12 months of age. We want them to reach full size (generally over a year old) before they breed to lower pregnancy risks later on. Ewes that came from a twin birth have a higher chance of having twins themselves, which can be valuable as it will help grow the herd faster.

Our first lamb was born in mid-December 2012, a ram lamb named Percy. He will become the patriarch of the herd. He’s grown quite large in the last eight months, now weighing over 100 pounds. Percy will be taking over for his father Gordy, once he has reached full maturity. He is a half Dorper and half Katahdin. Both breeds are hair sheep, meaning they actually don't have wool, but lose their hair in the summer months and grow it back as the weather becomes cooler in the late fall. These breeds are known to have good meat characteristics and are very hardy. One ram is capable of breeding 30-50 ewes. Selection of the ram is quite important since he is essentially 50% of the genetic makeup of the herd. Percy has already shown good qualities as a future ram, with heavy muscling and a small head to he will pass down to his offspring, easing issues during birthing.

Father son

Shawn Dugan introducing Gordy to his son Percy

Young Percy

Young Percy

Percy Today

Percy this week

Molly was our first ewe lamb born, and she has unique markings.  I fed her by hand from when she was a few days old, and she is quite friendly. Her name was crowd-sourced: we started by asking the employees at Tablas Creek for nominations, and put the top choices out to our Facebook followers. I think her name is rather fitting.

Molly

Young Molly

The ewe lambs were recently removed from the herd and weaned from their mothers for the first time, to prevent them breeding this year. After a few trying days it seems that these lambs have made the adjustment to their separation and are only concerned with the feed bucket.

Stop Staring

Inside lambing barn this week, Molly on left.

This experimental animal project, now almost two years old, has been a smashing success. I’ve described the more practical reasons for having them around, but what we didn’t expect was the effect it would have on our own employees. Not a day goes by there isn’t someone that wants to go see the animals or wants to share stories of the silly antics of the multi-species herd. It brings people out into the vineyard more often, and gives them a deeper tie and connection to our estate. Our customers have also responded. Not long ago we hosted an event where we had a walking tour of all of our different creatures here at Tablas. Families, some with children, some without, were able to interact with all the sheep, donkeys, pigs, goats, chicken and humans. It even got written up as a blog piece by KCET TV in Los Angeles. This has all shown me how much joy these animals can bring to people of all ages, and it’s something that I get the privilege to experience every day.

Inner barn

Late afternoon light inside lambing barn


Photo essay: head-trained, dry-farmed Grenache on Scruffy Hill

Over recent years, we've become more and more convinced that dry farming is perhaps our most powerful tool in making wines that express their place.  I wrote about this in detail in 2010, and since then most of our new plantings have been very traditional: head-trained, dry-farmed and wide-spaced, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which scarce water can be pulled.  Of course, the vines have to grow an enormous root system to pull out this water, and it's probably of little surprise that the lots from these dry-farmed blocks are typically among the most compelling in our blind tastings.  The En Gobelet wine (read about the 2010 here) made entirely from these blocks is probably the clearest example.

We source the majority of our En Gobelet from a block we call Scruffy Hill, a relatively isolated dozen-acre planting on the south side of Tablas Creek, bordering Vineyard Drive. I spent some time this morning, under rare summer cloud cover, prowling around Scruffy Hill to see how the vines were faring after our second consecutive drought winter and our hot spell a few weeks back.  I was, as I consistently am, blown away by how healthy and vibrant the block looks, typically at least as vigorous as blocks that we plant in the trellised, densely planted configuration more commonly seen in California vineyards.  A few photos will illustrate.  First, an overview of the block, with head-trained vines retreating down the hill:

IMG_3940_cover

You can see how chalky the soils are even in the above photo. Here's a closeup:

IMG_3948

The Grenache vines (which comprise a big piece of this block) are still pre-veraison, vibrantly green but fully sized, ready to change color in the next few weeks:

IMG_3955

In my ramblings, I found exactly two purple berries.  One is below, presaging the coming transformation:

IMG_3923

One of the advantages of head training is that the weight of the growing clusters pulls down on the canes of upright-growing grape varieties like Grenache, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew.  For the same reason, it's not a great technique for more horizontal-growing varieties like Syrah.  And even when the canes have been pulled down, like in the vine below, the leaves still sit above them and offer shade.  I didn't see a single sunburned berry in my explorations.

IMG_3941

One more photo will give you a sense of the whole picture at this deceptively quiet juncture in the ripening cycle:

IMG_3919

The transformation that will take place over the next few weeks will change the look and feel of the vineyard dramatically.  But for now, things look just great.