Creating a Wine Tasting Show: The Story behind Chelsea and the Shepherd

By Ian Consoli

If you follow only our blog and not our other social media channels, it’s possible that you don’t yet know Chelsea and the Shepherd. Or at least, you might know Chelsea, or the Shepherd, but not Chelsea and the Shepherd. If that’s the case, please allow me to introduce you. Blog readers, meet our YouTube series in which our Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and our Shepherd Nathan Stuart walk you through the wines in Tablas Creek Vineyard’s most recently released VINsider wine club shipment. YouTube series, meet our readers.

For many, the series has become a favorite. Some gravitate toward Chelsea’s incisive observations (and next level vocabulary). Others identify with Nathan, as he brings the wine tasting process down to Earth.

As we prepare for the release of Chelsea and the Shepherd Season 2 I thought it would be fun to share how it came to be created. It’s a story that begins with two guys with just enough time on their hands to be creative and a desire to make the wine tasting process less intimidating and more fun.

Chelsea and Nathan Main Thumbnail

Shepherd Nathan Stuart came to Tablas Creek with an eclectic resume and a remarkable collection of talents. Shepherd. Cellar hand. Trained vineyard guy. Cameraman. Drone operator. Video editor. In early 2019, when I moved into my marketing role here at Tablas Creek, he had already produced two amazing videos sharing Tablas Creek’s story: the Esprit de Tablas Story and the People behind Patelin de Tablas. We were fortunate enough to share an office. Day one Nathan looks at me with an eager smile under an impressively giant mustache and says, “Oh we’re doing marketing together now? This is going to be fun.”

Fun it certainly has been. To his technical talent Nathan adds a creative mind, openness to discussion, and an inability to turn off his imagination. He also, it turns out, is just as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. The net result? I’ve been living in a think tank for most of the last two years.

Fast forward to a vertical tasting of Panoplie in July of 2019. I sat in awe as I first got to bear witness to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi’s descriptors and vocabulary. After scurrying back to the think tank and mentioning it to Nathan, the idea of capturing her ability to paint pictures with her words was born.

Fast forward again, to November 2019, just after a harvest in which I see the value of Nathan’s periodic forays into cellar life, how he makes the rest of the team laugh, how his ability to work hard but not seriously makes the whole team better, and it clicks, “a wine tasting show with a winemaker and the shepherd!” Chelsea absolutely loves the idea. The valve on the think tank opens up, the ideas pour out like some freshly fermented Grenache, and Chelsea and the Shepherd is born.

Our challenge: even in a non-Covid year, we ask a lot of our members if they want to learn about the wines we send to them. We host a pickup party each spring and fall, and it’s a testament to their dedication that so many of them make the trip each time, but still, it’s an experience that the 90+% of our members who don’t join us can’t share. How to bring this experience to members, wherever they live? Technology! Our idea: A YouTube video to walk wine club members through their newest six-bottle shipment. Give great information, but don’t assume too much knowledge. We know that people can join us at any point in their wine journey, so it’s essential that we be approachable for newcomers. By combining Chelsea’s wine knowledge and vocabulary with Nathan’s everyman relatability, it seemed like we had a good balance.

The first take: February, 2020. Nathan prepares his camera for a six-wine, single-day shoot. Un-planned, un-rehearsed, they sit down for a full 8-hour workday, a testament to Nathan’s boundless energy and Chelsea’s patience and inherent parenting skills. They piece together what will ultimately become the first episode of Chelsea and the Shepherd. For Nathan, that 8-hour film day is just the beginning as he takes many more to turn those hours of footage into a five-minute video.

Covid’s impact: The original launch date of the Chelsea and the Shepherd video was March 24th 2020. We’d prepared a couple of teaser videos that we pushed back because mid-March felt so scary. But as we settled into a “new normal” of lockdowns, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders we began to recognize that this video was a potentially powerful way for us to connect our fans and our wines with the tasting room closed. Turning it into a series seemed only appropriate. Nathan utilized the extra footage, compiled individual videos for each wine, and our YouTube video became a YouTube series.

Had Covid-19 not hit, it’s hard to know whether or not we would have felt compelled to turn it into a full series. We’re glad we did, and plan to continue to release new seasons with every wine club shipment, giving you insights that, in the past, were only available if you visited.

And now: Enjoy Season Two, Episode One of Chelsea and the Shepherd on our YouTube Channel! While you’re there, consider subscribing and following along.

So did we reach our goal of appealing to all of our audiences? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


Congratulations to Winemaker Neil Collins, Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year for 2019!

At the end of January, nearly 30 of the Tablas Creek team joined some 200 members of the Paso Robles wine community to celebrate our long-time winemaker Neil Collins, who was voted by his peers the 2019 Paso Robles Wine Country Person of the Year. You can read the official announcement from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. 

Tablas Creek Winemaker Neil Collins - Landscape

With one exception -- the 1997 vintage, during which Neil was working at Beaucastel -- Neil has had a hand in every vintage of Tablas Creek. We first met him in 1994, when he was Assistant Winemaker at Adelaida Cellars, where we rented space to make our first few vintages of practice wine. By the time we'd gotten our French clones into production and built our winery in 1997, we'd become so impressed with Neil's work that we offered him our winemaking position and the opportunity to spend a year working at Beaucastel. We're honored that he's been here ever since. 

Along the way, Neil created two other businesses here in the Paso Robles area, and this award recognized these contributions at least as much as his winemaking at Tablas Creek. He started the Lone Madrone label with his wife Marci and his sister Jackie in 1996, through which he has championed dry-farmed vineyards on Paso's West side while focusing on heritage grapes like Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc, along with (of course) Rhones and the occasional parcel that was too good to turn down. Nebbiolo, anyone? And as if that wasn't enough on his plate, for the last decade he's been leading a Central Coast cider renaissance through his Bristol's Cider label and the Bristol's Cider House in Atascadero.

When my dad and Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin started Tablas Creek, they felt pretty confident in their abilities to grow, make wine out of, and sell Rhone grape varieties. (As it turned out, that assumption was probably a little optimistic, but what great adventure ever gets started without a little unwarranted optimism... and anyway, that's a story for another day.) What they found in Neil, in addition to a man with relentless curiosity and legitimate hands-on winemaking chops, was someone who was steeped in Paso Robles. Although he's not a native, he spent his whole winemaking career here, from its early days with Ken Volk at Wild Horse through his extended stint with John Munch at Adelaida. I know that it meant a lot for him to have Ken, who gave him his first job in wine, be the one who presented his award at the Gala. I videoed the presentation speech:

You might well ask how he's able to run what is in essence three separate businesses while still holding down a full-time job here at Tablas Creek. That's part of what makes Neil special. He has a great ability to get things rolling, empower the people who work for him, and then keep tabs on the status of the many projects he's working on without having to (or, just as importantly, feeling like he has to) do everything himself. But it's not that he's content with the status quo. Far from it. His relentless experimentation is one of the things that has allowed Tablas Creek to grow and thrive the way it has under his watch. And it's one of the reasons why his lieutenants here at Tablas Creek tend to stay for the long term. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, who's been here more than a decade herself, to share her thoughts on Neil, and I loved what she told me: "One of the things I love most about working with Neil is watching him build community and having the chance to be part of it. You see it in his close-knit family for sure, but it extends well beyond that. His groups of friends and colleagues, the family he's built in the Tablas Creek cellar team, his employees from Lone Madrone and Bristols - it's a true delight to be near someone who cares deeply about the humans around him."

I think you'll get a good sense of why people want to work with and for Neil from his acceptance speech:

It's an honor to call Neil a colleague and a friend, and I couldn't be more excited that he received this recognition. 


One last look back at 30 years of Tablas Creek, with legends

2019 was a year of milestones for us. We celebrated our 30th anniversary with a big party here and tastings around the country. We harvested three new grapes (Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese) and finally achieved our goal of getting the fourteenth and final Chateauneuf du Pape grape (Muscardin) into the vineyard. One of the coolest experiences that came out of this was the retrospective tasting that we hosted here, where we tasted every vintage of our flagship red wine, from our 1997 Rouge to the 2017 Esprit de Tablas. We invited all the legendary Rhone Rangers winemakers we could contact to join us, and were excited that so many made the trip. And it was great to taste all those wines. But the highlight for me was the conversation in that room, listening to these friends and colleagues, many of whom have been fighting to establish our category for three decades or more, talk about the early days of the Rhone Rangers. It stood out to me that all of them talked about the arrival of Tablas Creek as a game-changing moment in the movement's history. The arrival of two families with such deep and established roots in the world of international wine was different than anything that had yet happened in the American Rhone movement.

After Neil and I had talked about those conversations for a bit, we came up with an idea. We invited a few of these figures to come and sit down with us on camera to talk about what Tablas Creek's arrival meant to them, and to the category that we all share. I'm proud to share the video that resulted. Huge thanks to Patrick Comiskey (Senior Correspondent for Wine&Spirits and author of American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink), Bob Lindquist (Proprietor, Lindquist Family Wines), Justin Smith (Owner & Winemaker, Saxum Vineyards), and John Munch (Owner, Le Cuvier Winery).

The first thirty years of Tablas Creek were great. Thank you to everyone who helped us celebrate last year. And, if the last twelve months is any indication, what's to come is going to be even more exciting. Stay tuned.

30th Anniversary Video Still 3


What it Feels Like to Spend a Day in the Cellar During Harvest

The 2019 harvest will go down in our history as one of the most intense, compressed seasons ever. After a slow beginning, things ramped up the week of September 15th, and they really haven't stopped. We've picked at least 60 tons off of our estate each of the last four weeks, and suddenly, all that's left out there are little clean-up picks. We'll be done sometime this week.

I'll have a more detailed analysis of how the vintage compares to other recent years in my harvest recap blog either next week or the week after. But for now, what I wanted to do was give you a feel for what a day in the cellar feels like, not least because it's suddenly almost done. And harvest feels like that. You wait all year for it to begin, once it starts it feels like it will go on forever, and yet when the end comes, it comes suddenly, and marks the end of the intense camaraderie that comes with long hours, close quarters, and shared goals.

Our talented Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart chronicled one day in the cellar, October 8th, turning in his crook for his GoPro, adding a soundtrack and editing it all down to two minutes. Definitely turn up the volume on this one.

What did we pick that day? Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Grenache. But the sorting, destemming, and pressing of those lots wasn't all that was happening. We were filling barrels and digging out tanks of Grenache and Syrah harvested in previous weeks, punching down and pumping over a cellar full of wine, sampling vineyard lots to schedule upcoming picks, and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. And playing with the winery dogs, sharing one of Marci Collins' famous cellar lunches, keeping the espresso machine humming, and snacking on the leg of jamon in the lab, of course.

It was just one day, one long day, but also one pretty great day. 

Harvest Video October 8th 2019


The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

DSC09594

The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

DSC09499

And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

DSC03376

We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


A massive honey harvest from our new Langstroth hives means... a great vintage?

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!

Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.

When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!

As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:

Tablas Creek Beekeeping with Jordy Lonborg from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether.  Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).

Queen BeeCheck out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!

Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them.  When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.

To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.

Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”

Fingers crossed….


A Grapevine Pruning Tutorial with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena

After four relatively quiet months, March is go time in the vineyard. The days start to get longer, the cover crops and wildflowers explode into growth thanks to the sun and rain, and it starts to feel like spring is just around the corner.  Of course, it's not, quite; it's still often below freezing at night, and with the cold weather we've seen this year, the grapevines shouldn't sprout for at least another few weeks. But all of a sudden you know the clock is ticking.

Normally, we'd prune starting in January. And we did get a bit of a start this year.  But it's been wet enough that there were lots of days where we couldn't get into the vineyard, and pruning in the rain is an invitation to fungal infections and trunk diseases. That means we're behind where we'd normally be. You can't prune too early, because you need to wait until the vines are dormant so that they can store up the necessary vigor in their roots. And pruning too early encourages the vines to sprout early too, and in an area prone to spring frosts -- like Paso Robles -- that's a risk.  So, rather than prune in December, we typically do the bulk of our pruning in February and March, starting with the varieties that sprout late, and which we're not too worried about freezing, like Mourvedre and Roussanne.  We try to finish with Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, which all tend to sprout earlier, in the hopes of getting another week or ten days of dormancy out of them. 

Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena took 90 seconds to explain what they aim for in their pruning, and then demonstrate:

Pruning at Tablas Creek Vineyard from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

All this is done by hand.  We have about 115 acres that need to be pruned.  80 of these acres are trellised like the ones in the video, at roughly 1800 vines per acre.  The other 35 acres are head-trained, at much lower density, between 350 and 600 vines per acre.  That's more than 160,000 vines to prune.  At 20-25 seconds each, that's slightly more than 1,000 man-hours of work.  Figure that we typically have 8 of our full-time crew working on pruning in this season, with an hour of breaks each day makes 146 days of work... or with a crew of 8, just over 18 work days each.  That sounds about right... roughly a month of work, if the weather holds.

Why does all this matter? Pruning our vines well has several positive effects:

  • It reduces yields and improves quality.  As a rough estimate, you can figure on one cluster of grapes per bud that you leave during pruning.  Leaving six spurs each with two buds predicts roughly a dozen clusters of fruit, which should give us about the three tons per acre we feel is ideal for our setting and our style.
  • It makes for a healthier growing season.  If we space the buds correctly, we should have good vertical growth of canes and have clusters of fruit hanging below the canopy.  This configuration means that air flow through the rows should naturally minimize mildew pressure.  It will also shade the fruit from the sun at the hottest times of day, while allowing any nutrients or minerals we spray onto the vineyard to penetrate the canopy.
  • It promotes even ripening.  Different vines in any vineyard block have different base levels of vigor.  If left to their own devices, some might set a dozen clusters while others might set thirty.  Of course, the more clusters, the slower they ripen.  Getting an even cluster count helps minimize the spread between first and last fruit ripe in a block and makes the job of the picking crew much easier.
  • It sets up the vine for the following year.  Done well, pruning encourages the growth of wood in places where it will be needed in future years, filling in gaps where cordons may have died back in previous years or separating spur positions that have grown too close.
  • It saves labor later.  A good example of how much labor good pruning saves can be found by looking at a frost vintage, where the primary buds have been frozen and secondary buds left to sprout wherever the vine chooses.

We estimate that we're about 70% done with our annual pruning work. This week is supposed to be sunny, and if that holds, by the end of the week we should be largely done. And then we have another little break where we wait for budbreak and get to start worrying about frost. As I said a few years back, springtime is terrifying... but hopeful

Pruning shears at Tablas Creek


Assessing the Lovely Rainy Chilly 2018-2019 Winter So Far

OK, I may have given my feelings away in the title of this blog. So far, this winter has been wonderful. We got four inches of rain in November to kick things off (a total topped only three times in the 23 years we've had our weather station going). This got the cover crop growing and began the process of incorporating the compost we'd spread around the vineyard into the soil. A chilly but sunny December ensured that the vines were fully dormant and the cover crop well established, and then our rainy January (9+ inches) and February (10+ inches and counting) brought us to where we are now: a year where as of February 25th we've already reached our annual winter rainfall average, and are about 130% of where we'd expect to be in a normal year.

Tablas Creek rainfall by month winter 2018-19

Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:

Green Tablas Creek Vineyard February 2019

For the winter, we've already reached the 25 inches that is our long-term average, thanks mostly to the last two months. And there is more rain in the forecast; if we finish the year at the same 130% of normal that we are to date, that would put us at 32.5 inches, not quite at the heights we achieved before the 1998, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2017 vintages, but close:

Tablas Creek Rainfall by Year 1996-2019

There is water seeping out of hillsides and flowing merrily in Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard dogs have been returning from their romps exhausted and muddy:

Las Tablas Creek

You may have to be Californian (or at least to have lived here for a while, and through our recent drought) to understand how exciting the sound of running water is. Our Shepherd even made a video for those who want to savor it: 

So, on the water front, so far, so good. How about on the temperature front? Regular readers of the blog know that below-freezing nights aren't unusual in Paso Robles in the wintertime, but we've seen an unusual concentration recently. After only one frost night in November, we got four in December, five (including four consecutive nights in the mid-20s) in January, and a whopping fifteen so far in February, including the last eight. While rainy months and frosty months aren't unusual here, months that are both rainy and frosty are, because typically it only freezes when it's clear enough for radiational cooling to take place. Unusually this month, we've had cloudy nights below freezing, culminating in a rare snowy afternoon here last week:

What does all this mean for the 2019 vintage? It's early to say. But there have been years where late February already felt like spring, with our local almond trees in bloom and us starting to worry about bud break. For the grapevines, the two most important factors that they sense and which together cue them to come out of dormancy are the amount of the daytime sunlight (less this year because of all the clouds) and the soil temperature (well below average due to the constant rainfall and the cold nights and days). So, I would predict that we'll see a later beginning to the growing season than in recent years, and likely later even than last year's late-March bud-break, which was itself a bit of a throwback to the 2000's. That would be great; the benefit of a later budbreak is that we have fewer white-knuckle nights where we have to worry about frost, since by mid-May we are past that worry. If we can push budbreak back into April, so much the better.

So, while this winter has produced more Californian grumbling about the cold and rain than I remember hearing before, we'll take it. The vineyard is in great shape, and the vines still fully dormant. The persistent rain has meant an incredibly green cover crop with plenty of food for our flock. And the fast-moving weather systems have given us rainbow after rainbow. We ❤ you, winter in Paso Robles.

Rainbow over paso robles


Compost: Momma Nature’s Gift (A Step by Step Guide)

By Jordan Lonborg

Biodynamics has lots of facets, including applications of minerals, planting of flora, integration of fauna, and even reacting to celestial stimuli. But one of its most important components is one of the oldest, and one of the most practical for the home organic gardener. What is this magical tool? Compost, of course.

What, where, and how do you compost? I'm happy you asked. Essentially, when you compost, you are encouraging a natural process, and then using the beneficial byproduct of what in the wild would be a part of the yearly cycle of growth and decay that takes place in every stand of trees, every forest, and most of all, every jungle on the planet. Simply put, compost is the biodegradation, or breakdown, of plant material that falls to the ground in the form of leaves, fruit, branches etc. The second that material hits the ground, the breakdown begins. This food chain is often invisible, and frequently smelly, but without it, there is no life on this planet. Small insects and microorganisms begin to feed on the litter. As the litter is continuously broken down by various organisms -- insects that you can see with the naked eye, all the way to microscopic bacteria -- nutrient rich humus (not the cracker spread) is excreted. As the humus accumulates, beneficial bacteria and fungi begin to grow. These bacteria and fungi work in symbiosis with the root structures of living plants, allowing those plants to take in the nutrients that are contained in the humus.

Jordy compost closeupA closeup of our compost, with Mycelium, a white vegetative part of a fungus crucial for our compost teas

In a farm setting, where we try to recreate this natural process, there are many ways and forms of composting. At Tablas Creek, we utilize the process commonly known as wind row composting (long rows that are typically 7-8 ft. wide and 5-6 feet tall). When starting the pile, there are a few crucial steps/measures that need to be taken to create a biologically active environment. First and foremost is the carbon (dry, woody material) to nitrogen (“green” material or plant material that still has moisture within it such as pressed grapes or the rachis/stems of the cluster’s that had recently gone through one of the first steps in the winemaking process known as de-stemming). Ideally, this ratio should be 3:1, carbon to nitrogen. Our carbon source comes from all of the prunings collected from across the ranch. We put these through a chipper and add walnut tree wood chips from piles we kept after clearing the old walnut trees from the part of the property known as “Jewel Ridge” (this will eventually be our next dry farmed planting).

Jordy with compostHappy compost makes for a happy Viticulturist!

The carbon sources are collected and piled up throughout the winter months. During harvest is when the magic happens. As grapes are pressed and de-stemmed, we begin to incorporate the skins and rachis into the piles of woody material. The breakdown of the woody material and formation of humus begins at this point. When the green material starts to decompose, heat and moisture start to release, and microorganisms that feed on the woody material begin to feed and populate. At this point, it is crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile. The ideal internal temperature of a pile that is actively composting is 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. When green material is incorporated into the pile in the beginning stages, decomposition of the green material can occur so quickly that temperatures within the pile can skyrocket. When a compost pile experiences prolonged temperatures of 170 degrees and above, anaerobic (oxygen deprived) conditions begin to form, which both suppresses the growth of of beneficial microorganism and allows other non-beneficial microorganisms to take their place. To prevent this from happening, we “turn” the pile.

Turning our compost pile has become what Neil Collins, Tablas Creek's most esteemed (OK, he's the only winemaker since inception), termed an “obsession” of mine. He is correct. Taking a 20” thermometer and inserting into a pile that is 8’ wide, 6’ tall, and 50 yards long, at this point in the year and reading temperatures that exceed 170-180 degrees absolutely blows my mind. Therefore, to encourage the beneficial microbiological activity within the pile, and with hopes of trying to get the temperature to stabilize at 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun is coming up I hop in the loader, and begin to move the pile, scoop by scoop to an adjacent location. This process incorporates oxygen, decreases the temperature, and disrupts and any anaerobic activity that may be beginning to occur. It’s an amazing sensation when you start getting into the heart of this pile that is creating ridiculous amounts of heat, steam, and smells during cold mornings at sunrise. The aerobic, properly composting sections of the pile smell amazing. Like earthy, mulled cider to an extent. When you hit the anaerobic areas, they also smell amazing but would be considered more of a stench than anything. I’m still working on a descriptor, but think of a hot swamp. No bueno. During this point in the year/composting process, we turn the pile every 2-3 days. In time, the temperatures begin to stabilize and the constant need to turn the pile subsides. The microorganisms that have been digesting the woody material and in turn releasing the beginning stages of humus are in full effect. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin to bloom at rapid rates. This is our happy place.  In nature, it can take many, many years for humus to even begin to form. A properly managed compost pile expedites that natural process. From last week:

Traditionally, we’ve spread the compost created on the farm throughout the vineyard and followed up with an implement known as a disc which incorporates the compost into the soil profile. But that's not the only way we use the compost. We have expanded our compost tea program: a process in which you take compost, soak it in a tank of water that is heavily oxygenated, and encourage the beneficial microorganisms to move off of the compost into solution. Next we add nutrients to the tea, and the compost's beneficial microorganisms (now in suspension in the water) begin to feed on these nutrients and extrapolate at a rapid pace. This finished tea is like a probiotic shake for a grapevine, packed with beneficial organisms, and can be injected directly into the soil profile through your drip system or applied to the vine leaves throughout the vineyard. If applied through the drip system, whatever organic matter resides in your soil profile will break down faster while foliar applications have shown to combat powdery mildew and provide nutrients to grapevines.

Composting is a necessary process that takes place on most if not all organic and biodynamic farms across the world. Yes, we could purchase organic fertilizers, but why would we want to, when composting means we reuse the waste generated on our farm, we produce a product that can be used in many ways to increase the fertility of our soil and the health of our vines, and we do it all without having to bring anything in from the outside, with all the trucking and greenhouse gas impact that implies.


Releasing Esprit de Tablas and thinking about my dad

This is the time of year when we release the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc.  We've been doing this long enough to have a pretty consistent plan of attack each year.  First, in late summer, we send our most recent vintage of the Esprits out to the club members who ordered futures en primeur the year before. Then, the Esprit wines form the centerpieces of our fall VINsider Wine Club shipments, which go out to members in early October.  We show those wines to members at our VINsider shipment tasting party (which happened this past weekend) and look for a local event at which we can have them make their public debut (this year, it will be at our Harvest Festival dinner with the Cass House Grill in Cayucos).

Then, we turn our focus to the national market.  I spend a good chunk of my fall getting in front of our distributors in key markets around the country; in the last few months I've made trips to Boston, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC.  I head to Chicago next week.  Tomorrow I'll make the drive up to Santa Rosa and show the 2016 Esprits for the first time to Regal Wine Company, who represents us in California.  In these presentations, I tell the story of Tablas Creek, remind people that the Esprit de Tablas wines are our flagship bottlings, and share the new vintage with the sales team, who will hopefully then take that message out to the right restaurants and retail shops they call on.

Last year, we realized that the story of Esprit de Tablas was really, in many ways, a distillation of the story of Tablas Creek. It seemed to me that the only appropriate voice to tell this story was my dad's.  So, when I was in Vermont last summer, he and I sat down in front of a camera manned by my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, and spent an afternoon talking about how Tablas Creek came about.

Filming the Esprit de Tablas video with RZH

When we were done, we had about two hours of footage, treasure troves of stories from my dad's 60+ year wine career.  The multi-talented Nathan Stuart, whose primary role is to oversee our animal program, took off his shepherd hat and put on his videographer hat, and spent the next couple of weeks editing the relevant pieces of the story into a five-minute video that traces the development of the Esprit de Tablas, from my dad's perspective.  I'll be showing this video tomorrow to our California distributor, and again next week in Chicago.

I didn't realize, when I went to put my presentation together, how much hearing my dad's voice would affect me, but I've been finding that a lot of the times I miss him most are when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly, and I hear him talking about Tablas Creek, and remember how much he loved working on all this.  I will always feel lucky that I got to spend that time working with him, helping him make his dream of what Tablas Creek could be into reality.

Hopefully, the distributor teams I show this to over the next couple of weeks will find it inspiring, too. And hopefully, I'll make it through my presentation (most of which comes after this video) without choking up.