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:
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.
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.
Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:
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:
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:
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:
You've seen the Nile, you've seen the Amazon, now turn on your sound and enjoy the tranquility of the Tablas! Running water is very exciting around here. You would have to be a Californian to understand. pic.twitter.com/BhSb4Km5c0
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:
It's always exciting to see snow at the vineyard. And though Thursday didn't bring enough snow to stick like it did back in 2011, there was enough to get the whole tasting room jumping around like children at recess! pic.twitter.com/ptBYa89TW4
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.
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.
A 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).
Happy 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:
Some steamy early morning compost action! As our piles grow our Viticulturist Jordan is turning them to ensure that they don’t build up too much in temperature as the microbial activity builds. The temperature on this pile reached 180 degrees this morning! pic.twitter.com/wjPInPhaAQ
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.
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.
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.
It is with sadness that I write to report that my dad, Tablas Creek's co-founder Robert Haas, passed away last weekend, one month before his 91st birthday. Followers of Tablas Creek likely know him from his time here at the winery, either at events like our blending seminars, or from his articles on this blog. He was a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade.
What many of you may not know is the impact he had on the American wine market before Tablas Creek ever got off the ground, or what he was like as a person. I hope to share some of each of these in this piece, as well as some of my favorite photos of him. And we may as well start here, from his 89th birthday party two Aprils ago:
My dad was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 18th, 1927. His father Sidney ran a gourmet butcher shop named M. Lehmann that he had inherited from his uncle Morris Lehmann. My dad would talk about going to visit his grandparents and walking over to Ebbets Field, and would remain a Dodgers fan for life. One of my favorite gifts I ever got for him was a ball signed by Sandy Koufax. Small but strong and quick, he also played baseball and was a good enough shortstop to get an invitation to an open Dodgers tryout from a scout while he was in high school, and a good enough athlete to win summer camp tennis tournaments despite never really playing the sport.
After the repeal of prohibition Sidney was on the ball enough to get New York's first retail liquor license, and turned M. Lehmann into a liquor store and eventually New York's top fine wine shop. Meanwhile my grandparents had moved to Scarsdale, NY, in the suburbs, and my dad had gained a sister, my aunt Adrienne. After high school, he followed in his grandfather's footsteps and went to Yale, but interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Navy in December of 1944. After two years in the Navy, he returned to Yale, graduated class of 1950, and joined his father's business.
While there, he convinced his father -- who thought no one would ever pay for wine before they could take possession of it -- to put out the first-ever futures offer on Bordeaux, commissioning hand-colored lithographs describing the qualities of the 1952 vintage and selling out the 1500 cases he had reserved in just a few weeks. When the store was looking for a new buyer for their French wine after the death of Raymond Baudouin in 1953, my dad and his two years of college French jumped at the opportunity. His goal on this first French trip in 1954 was ostensibly to find a new wine buyer. But I've always gotten the sense from him that he decided quickly that there was no way anyone but him was going to do that job. I asked him just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he responded "Yes, I pretty much knew at the end of my first day that this was what I wanted to do". So, at age 27, he became M. Lehmann's wine buyer, and soon after started cultivating relationships with distributors in other states, so he could be a better customer for the suppliers whose wines he was buying. Meanwhile, he had married, and had his first two children, my sister Janet and brother Danny.
It was in this period that he cemented his relationships with many of the Burgundy suppliers who are still crown jewels of the Vineyard Brands import book: iconic estates like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, and Dauvissat. He also agreed to buy the lion's share of the production of Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus after their British agents balked at a price increase for the iconic 1961 vintage, and represented them exclusively over the next decade.
His relationship with my grandfather was not always smooth. I know there was tension where my grandfather wanted him to spend more time minding the store, and less time traveling around France buying wine and around America selling it. Sidney was at heart a merchant, not a wine lover. I believe he thought my dad would settle down at some point, and was surprised that when he announced that he was ready to retire, my dad suggested he sell M. Lehmann and my dad would take the contacts he'd made and turn them into an importing business. But neither backed down, and that's what happened. After an initial ill-fated sale to one of its employees, the rival Sherry Wine & Spirits bought M. Lehmann and merged the two to become Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, which remains one of New York's iconic wine shops to this day.
The late 1960s was a difficult period for my dad in a few ways. He was a one-man show, often advocating for wine in a market that didn't yet value it. He worked for a few years to build a wine division within Barton Brands, who had bought the inventory from my grandfather's import company, before he realized that they were so much more interested in liquor that getting them to focus on wine was hopeless. And his first marriage had ended, although he did meet my mom not long after, on a flight back to New York from Florida. When my mom Barbara first visited his apartment, she remembers the entire contents of his fridge being a few condiments and a bottle of vodka. A photo from their wedding, in January 1968:
It was in this period that he first met Jacques Perrin and convinced him to sell him some wine from the Beaucastel cellar. [The remarkable story where I found one of these bottles on the legendary wine list at Bern's Steak House is told in full in one of my favorite-ever blog posts, from 2012]. He built upon this relationship with Jacques' son Jean-Pierre, with whom he developed the La Vieille Ferme brand. From a beginning of a few hundred cases, sold as an exclusive to Sherry-Lehmann in 1970, it is now the largest French wine brand in the world. In the end he decided to set up shop on his own, first in New York and then, when they got tired of city living, from the converted barn of the 1806 Vermont farmhouse to which they moved in 1970. He incorporated Vineyard Brands in 1973, the same year that I was born. This photo of Jacques (left) and my dad is from that very same year, which I know because there's also a photo of me, age 5 months, sitting on Jacques' lap from the same visit.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, he balanced additions to the estate side of Vineyard Brands with new brands, championing Rioja (Marques de Caceres), Chile (Santa Rita), and New Zealand (Villa Maria). He also had his second daughter and fourth child, my sister Rebecca, and was active in the Chester, Vermont community, serving on the school board and as a little league coach. Long-time employees of Vineyard Brands still remember us coming back to the house in uniform as they were getting ready for dinner.
He was not infallible in his business judgments; he had an ongoing tendency to be ahead of the market, championing regions that are now critical darlings like Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Oregon a decade or longer before the market was ready to accept them. But he had a terrific nose for regions or wines that were punching above their cost, and was willing to put in the work to establish regions and producers at the same time.
This instinct was on full view in California, where he represented some of the greats of the first generation in Napa and Sonoma, like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and he helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s as the California Chardonnay wave was gathering. When he was in California with Jean-Pierre Perrin or his brother Francois, he would bring them to visit California wineries to see what they thought, and they together came away both convinced that California was capable of making world-class wines and confused as to why no one was trying Rhone varieties in the clearly Mediterranean climate. Abstract discussions in the mid-1970s gradually became more serious, and they decided to start looking for property together in 1985, even as each was fully engaged in growing their own businesses. This photo of my dad with Jean-Pierre and Francois at Beaucastel is from around that time:
I first became aware that my dad was a big deal in certain circles when I read an article ("Have Palate, Will Travel") in a 1988 edition of the Wine Spectator. The photo below, which is one of my favorites of him, must have been from the same photo session, since he's wearing the same outfit. He's leaning against the gate of one of the gardens at our Vermont house. He hadn't yet started to step back from the day-to-day operations at Vineyard Brands, but he would soon, to focus on Tablas Creek:
By the early 1990's, my dad had turned over the running of Vineyard Brands to his second-in-command there, and the relationships with the French suppliers to my brother Danny. How he did so says a lot about him. He saw an ad in the Boston Globe about a seminar promoting a new federal program called an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) which could be used to turn a business over to its employees. And that's what he did: in essence, Vineyard Brands bought itself from him, and is now owned by its employees. This has allowed the company to remain independent, to continue to grow and thrive after my dad's retirement, and to enjoy a continuity and longevity from its team that is almost unheard of in this age. There are still significant portions of the senior leadership of Vineyard Brands that were hired by my dad, more than 25 years ago. And my dad was able to take the money and invest it in Tablas Creek.
The search to find Tablas Creek and the development of the property here is likely better known to readers of this blog, but I think the same willingness to be ahead of the curve was in evidence in the decision to settle on Paso Robles at a time when few people were talking about it, and the focus on blends when the marketplace was firmly oriented toward varietals. But in both cases, he was convinced that what mattered was the right raw materials (soils, climate, rainfall) and the right winemaking decisions. The rest was simply a question of perseverance. The photo of the ceremonial planting of the first vines released from quarantine in 1992 shows (from left) Jean-Pierre Perrin, my cousin Jim O'Sullivan, my mom and dad, Charlie Falk (who worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and then helped with the search for Tablas Creek), Charlie's wife Gretchen Buntschuh, and Jean-Pierre's wife Bernadette Perrin.
As Tablas Creek grew from an idea into a business, it encountered many of the challenges faced by any startup. We overestimated the readiness of the market for the blends we were making, and underestimated the importance of taking an active role in our own marketing. But the fundamental idea that my dad and the Perrins had was a good one, and this spot has turned out to be an extraordinary one in which to grow Rhone grape varieties. And because of my dad's business philosophy -- that you make your best guess at what you need to do, put the resources behind it, and then be willing to adjust your strategy based on what you learn -- we were able to make the changes that eventually allowed Tablas Creek to thrive.
Perhaps most important to Tablas Creek's legacy will end up being the partners' decision to bring in grapevine cuttings rather than live with what was already in California, and to make the clones we'd imported available to the community. More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings, and my dad was always convinced that our decision to bring in vines spurred the reversal of a long-standing policy by ENTAV (the French national nursery service) against partnering with out-of-country nurseries. This policy change has led to the import of hundreds of new varieties and clones, and a new flowering of diversity in American grapegrowing, Rhone and otherwise.
My dad maintained an active role at Tablas Creek up until the very end. I often heard from his friends that they thought that his passion for this project kept him young, and I believe that. In the period in the mid-2000's when we were pushing to establish Tablas Creek in the market, he was out there (in his 70's and 80's, mind you), riding around with our distributors, making presentations to restaurants and retailers, up and down subway steps during the day and hosting dinners and tastings in the evening. A quiet retirement this was not. But he was always willing to put his own effort behind the things he believed in, and if this was what needed to be done, he was going to do it. And the example of the Perrins, who are now on their fifth generation running their estate, is an inspiring one for all of us. The photo below, from 2009, shows my dad at lower left, and then (continuing counter-clockwise) me, Francois Perrin, Francois' son Cesar, and our winemaker Neil Collins, who has been here so long he might as well be family. It's not only in Vineyard Brands that the longevity of the employees my dad hired is in evidence; it's a hallmark of every business he's been a part of.
By the early 2010s, my dad had cut back a little but was still coming into the vineyard 3-4 days per week, and had stopped going out and working the market but was still hosting 4-6 wine dinners a year around the country. He led the 2015 Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise with my mom. And he was starting to be recognized as the living icon that he was. One of the nicest windows I got into how others saw him was in the production and ceremony for the lifetime achievement award he received from the Rhone Rangers in 2014. The video incorporated his story with interviews with many of the wine industry titans whose lives and careers he impacted. I've been re-watching it a lot this week.
In the last few years, my dad's health issues escalated; he endured a stroke 18 months ago, and wasn't able to be at the vineyard as much. But he and my mom still maintained an active role in the community, and he continued his work with the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, in San Luis Obispo. In 2009, he he created a new "winery partners" program for the Foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support arts in our local community. He continued to lead this program until last year, and asked at the end that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the foundation.
As he did with the rest of his life, he knew what he did and didn't want for his death. He wanted to be at home, he wanted to have family around, and he didn't want a fuss made. So last week, as it became clear that the end was near, my siblings flew out and joined my mom and me here in Paso Robles. He was lucid until Friday evening, and peaceful at the end. And I will forever be grateful for the time I got to spend with him, not just at the end, not just growing up, but in working with him for the last fifteen years. It's not every son who gets to know his dad as an adult, and gets to see him through the eyes of others who know him professionally. Hearing, over the last few days, from all the people whose lives he impacted over his long life and career, has been an unexpected treat in this difficult time. Thank you to everyone who has reached out. We will all miss him.
Friday marked the first day of harvest for us here at Tablas Creek. A whopping 8.72 tons of Viognier for the Patelin Blanc. This is just the soft start of our busiest season in the cellar. Soon the sweet smell of fermentation will be wafting from full tanks, our hands will be stained purple, and we will be busy with the task of guiding grapes through their transformation into wine.
Harvest is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of work in the vineyard. A year of sunshine, rain, wind, temperature fluctuations, frosty mornings, heat waves, all having an effect on the character of the next vintage in bottle. Countless hours of work, making sure the vines produce the best fruit possible. Our job in the winery is not to mess it up. Once the fruit is placed on our doorstep, the vineyard’s work for the year is done. The vines can rest, and begin dreaming of winter hibernation. Now it is our time, our opportunity, to create something spectacular.
We have been preparing the winery for the last month, cleaning harvest equipment, pressure washing fruit bins, rebuilding pumps, making sure presses work, and tanks are sanitized. We have purchased supplies, new winemaking toys, and tools to fix the new toys when they inevitably break. At times it feels like preparing for battle, making sure every detail of preparedness has been taken care of. Our goal is to come out victorious, with new wines that have reached their maximum potential as our spoils. (Perhaps I have been watching too much Game of Thrones.)
We have also been preparing ourselves, both mentally and physically. We desire harvest to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. That means we need to be as equally prepared as the winery. Safety training, CPR and first aid certifications, training of excited interns, revisiting our standards and procedures for everything harvest related. The row of machines dedicated to supplying artificial energy has appeared in the lab. A coffee pot, espresso machine, and even an iced tea maker, to help us grind through the longest days. Soon a beautiful leg of cured Spanish ham will appear, fondly known as “The Stinker”, for our snacking delight. The fridge has been stocked with cold libations to help us keep our sanity at the end of a hard day's work.
We rejoice with the opportunity to stop shaving, (the men anyways) not worrying about looking presentable to the general public. The slow process of transforming into cave men has begun. We have had our last suppers and bits of summer vacation, both friends and family knowing we will be out of social commission for the next few months. Every bit of down time will be needed for sleep, a decent meal, and perhaps a stab at the pile of dirty, grape-stained laundry looming in the corner of the bedroom.
Relationships will be built, friendships made, stories told, and also created. So many hours spent with one another provides a connection deeper than the average 9 to 5 workday experience. Musical tastes will emerge, and then be sub sequentially suppressed by the opposition. Senses of humor will arise, movie quotes rehearsed, dirty jokes told, and a few curse words may take flight. We have come together with a common objective, to raise wines through the start of their long journey to our dinner table. If we are successful, we will enter harvest as a team, and exit as family.
Harvest is the best time of year. Tensions are high, and so are emotions of excitement and thrill. Creating fine wine is an exhilarating feeling matched by very few experiences in life. It is the perfect combination of science and nature, with opportunity for artistic expression every step of the way. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations of creating something magical gain traction around every corner.
This morning, we way our first day of red fruit, beautiful clusters of Pinot Noir that will ultimately become the Full Circle. Perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of what harvest will signify for the vineyard? The last arc in the annual circle it takes on its mission to produce the world’s most noble beverage.
Meanwhile, we'll celebrate the beginning, in style.
OK, maybe I should have picked a different title, just so that I wouldn't have ABBA running through my head for the rest of the day. But it seemed appropriate.
We have been concerned with low yields on our Syrah. Typically a pretty vigorous producer, our Syrah yields have declined more than the rest of the vineyard, from an average of 3.4 tons/acre between 2003 and 2008 to just 2.2 tons/acre since 2009. Some of this can be attributed to the frost years of 2009 and 2011, and the drought we've seen since, but even in the otherwise vigorous year of 2012 yields were just 2.6 tons/acre, and they declined all the way to 1.5 tons/acre last year. Low yields in Syrah are a particular concern because typically we prefer it with somewhat higher yields, which can soften its often-powerful tannins and increase its complexity by lengthening its hang time.
Our largest and oldest block of Syrah, on the western edge of our original property, seems most to blame. We attribute its decline to at least two issues. Much of the block is low enough, and on flat enough ground, that it gets frozen even when most of the rest of the vineyard escapes. While a grapevine generally recovers after a single frost, repeated frosts, year after year, can lead to significant vine mortality. And so it was in this block. Compounding its problems, that Syrah block has also shown significant symptoms of trunk diseases, where fungal infections get inside the bark and gradually choke off the vine's ability to nourish the new growth further down the cordon. This has led to additional vine mortality, as well as decreased yields in the remaining vines.
Although we think we've mitigated the trunk disease issue by switching that Syrah block to a new trellis system that produces new growth each year rather than relying on the same cordons, there are so many missing and weak vines that we have decided that the only real solution is to pull the block out and start over. But even with its declining yields, that block still accounts for roughly half our Syrah production each year. So we've been struggling with when to pull the plug over there and wait out the 4 years it will take to get the vineyard replanted and in production, and what to do to keep our Syrah crop reasonable in the interim.
Our solution: graft over a two-acre Roussanne block to Syrah, and get that in production before we pull out the old block. We've got plenty of Roussanne -- about 16 acres overall -- and often find in our white blending that we have surplus to what we really need. We looked in April at the different Roussanne blocks to see if we could find one that we wouldn't miss too badly if it went away. And there is such a block, which over the last several years has usually finished toward the bottom of our rankings in the blind varietal tastings that we do to start each blending session.
Step one in the changeover was to go through and cut off the tops of the existing Roussanne vines, which we did in early May. We then let the vines bleed for a few weeks to reduce the sap pressure that can interfere with the connection between the new buds and the existing trunk:
Next, we came through (the photo below is from mid-May) and cleaned up the vine tops, peeling back the bark to allow a clean graft:
Then, two weeks ago, we brought in a specialist grafting crew to come through, cut little wedges out of each Roussanne trunk and shape Syrah buds to fit into the wedges, slot the buds in place and tape the graft unions together:
Now, 2 weeks later, the buds are starting to sprout:
This year, we'll let the new bud grow into a cane, and over the winter we'll start to train it into the shape we'll want for the finished vine. We won't get any crop this year, but we will get a small crop next year and a full crop, supercharged by the 20-year-old vine roots, the year after. We did the same thing with our old Chardonnay block in 2013 -- grafting half of it to Mourvedre and half to Counoise -- and got a good crop off of that block last harvest. One of the Counoise vines today:
If you're interested in seeing this in action, check out the video we made in 2013 of that Chardonnay/Counoise changeover. The voice you hear is our former Viticulturist Levi Glenn, explaining:
What will we do with the old Syrah block? We're not sure yet. Given its tendency to be frost prone, at least in the lower parts of the block, It's probably not ideal for the early-sprouting Syrah. But for something like Mourvedre? That seems like a slam dunk. Stay tuned.
This week, I made the long drive up to Sacramento to accept an award that I'm as proud of as any that we've ever received. This award is a 2016 California Green Medal, a program created by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance last year to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. From the award:
The awards recognize wineries in three categories, for their innovations in bringing greater sustainability to their environment, their community involvement, and their business practices. There is also an umbrella award for their vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories. The application is essentially identical no matter which category you're going for. So, we applied for all of them, as all three are areas in which we've made a real effort. That said if I'd had to guess at a sub-category in which we'd have been recognized, it would have been for the environment. So, it was something of a surprise, but a happy one at that, that we were chosen for the community category. The event produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:
What, specifically, have we been doing to promote sustainability? Here's a partial list:
Property developed to wean vineyard off irrigation. We can now go into a second year of drought before needing to supplement
35 acres of wide-spaced vines (12x12 or 10x10) planted totally without irrigation
Have been the subject of a case study on dry farming by CAFF and hosted a series of dry-farming seminars since 2012
Converted to steam-cleaning barrels saving thousands of gallons of water per year
New 50-acre property in process of being planted entirely without need for irrigation
Soil & Nutrition Management
Vineyard has been certified organic since 2003 and farmed organically since inception in 1989
Cover crop includes legumes and is returned to the soil through mobile flocks of sheep, alpacas and donkeys, reducing need for outside fertilization
Cover crops are harvested annually to provide fodder for our animals when they cannot be in the vineyard
Nutrition is supplemented through the compost pile maintained on-site from our prunings and the skins, stems and seeds at harvest
Compost teas, made in house and used as foliar sprays, reduce the amount of sulfur needed to apply to the vineyard
Biodynamic applications provide crucial micronutrients to the vineyard
Biodynamic practices including interplanted fruit trees and native plants, encouraging natural insect controls of pests
Network of owl boxes and trapping program controls gopher population without poisons
Planted cover crop outcompetes weed seeds
Weeding is done mechanically using custom “tournesol” tractor attachment
Organic soaps and oils used as needed to control pest populations
Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation
We've farmed biodynamically since 2010 with own mixed flock of sheep, alpacas, and donkeys to graze cover crops, reduce organic fertilizer needs (down 30.1% vs. 2010-2011) and eliminate tractor passes
Interplanted fruit trees and sections of property left to native vegetation attract and provide habitat for beneficial insects
Wetlands area filters wastewater with the roots of cattails, reeds, and rushes while providing wildlife habitat
Beehives house three wild-caught swarms of honeybees
Vineyard blocks are designed with wildlife pass-throughs in each
Energy Efficiency & Greenhouse Gas Mitigation
Installed a 35kW solar bank in 2006
Installed an additional 50kW bank in 2015. We're still assembling data, but know that solar provides a majority of our annual power needs
Winery and office outfitted with motion-sensitive lights, dramatically reducing wasted electricity
Electric car and Tesla charging stations, installed early in 2016, are free for customers to use while visiting
Reduced wine club packaging material in 2014 by 50% for most picked-up packages
In March, we began the use of a hub system to transport wine shipments to the East Coast and ship from there, reducing shipping air freight and carbon footprint
Employees compensated beyond the industry standard with fully funded medical, dental and vision benefits, employer-matching 401k plan, educational support, wine shares and annual profit-sharing bonuses to both part-time and full-time employees
Employees encouraged and supported to continue education as it pertains to their positions
Our core vineyard team of 10 is employed year-round, allowing them to build a life here and allowing us to benefit from their expertise
Solid Waste Management
Replaced plastic water bottles with reusable stainless steel canteens, saving 19,000 bottles/year (760 gallons crude oil & 2700 lbs CO2)
Switched to lightweight glass (16.5 oz/bottle) in 2010, reducing case weight by 26% and total glass weight by 45 tons/year.
Have been leaders in move to package in reusable stainless steel kegs; in 2016 we will keg 7700 gallons of wine (22% of total production) reducing bottle needs by 38,500 bottles
Use 100% post-consumer recycled product and soy inks for brochures
Neighbors and Community
We have partnered on events with organizations like must! charities, local animal shelters, and arts organizations
Donated more than $100,000 to support local youth and arts programs since 2002
Sponsored 16 local youth sports teams since 2010
Within the local wine community, we helped create the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers chapter and led the community effort to approve 11 new AVAs
We've organized and hosted industry seminars on organic farming, dry farming, and Roussanne
The four recipients were all well represented at the event, and all seemed eminently worthy. We congratulate them all! The other three were Jackson Family Wines (Leader), McManis Family Vineyards (Business) and Halter Ranch (Environment). The four of us, together with Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the keynote speaker at the event:
It did not escape notice that two of the four honorees were from Paso Robles, or that Halter Ranch and we are neighbors. That two wineries from Paso Robles were winners is a testament to the innovation in this community, as well as the leadership provided by the Vineyard Team (until recently the Central Coast Vineyard Team), based in Atascadero. Their educational seminars and the fun Earth Day Food & Wine Festival (which just happened last weekend) have done a great deal to demystify sustainability to a broader base of vineyards and wineries here than maybe anywhere else.
Looking forward, I feel like the wine community is uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability. We grow a crop that originated in a part of the world where water was scarce, which does best in arid areas without great fertility. The areas are generally not well suited for grain or row crops. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. We produce a product from that crop that is value added, where efforts we make in producing better grapes can be rewarded by the market. And we largely have direct relationships with our customers which allow us to leverage any good work we're doing into better loyalty. All of that is true for any American winery. In California, we have the added advantage of living in a climate where rainfall is seasonal, so weed control can be handled mechanically with a minimum of expense, typically just once a year, in the late spring. And our very low humidity means that we face much less pressure from fungal diseases compared to most wine producing regions. In essence, if anyone can do it, we should be able to.
And I feel that if we have the opportunity to put sustainability at the forefront of what we do, we have that obligation. It was great to spend some time celebrating others on that same path.
This week, as you've probably heard, was the last week of the holiday-buying season. Yet in between the endless lists of the right wines for holiday gift giving were some truly interesting tidbits. Our favorites of the week are below:
An amazing time-lapse video of the changing weather
We're just emerging from three weeks of wet weather into a drier pattern. How wet? Not overwhelmingly, by total precipitation; we got 7.75 inches over that stretch, an amount not inconceivable for a single winter storm on the coast of California. But the distribution of that rain was remarkable: our weather station received measurable rainfall fifteen different days of twenty-two, with no more than two consecutive rain-free days. With that rain came some beautiful clouds and lots of surface fog. The time-lapse video captured by Biodynamic winery AmByth Estate, in the hilly El Pomar region just east of the town of Templeton, was pretty amazing.
The landscape here in Paso Robles has been transformed over the last few weeks. The hillsides are electric green in the sunny interludes, and the cover crops are months ahead of last year. The photo on the left, from Adelaida Cellars' Facebook page, gives a good sense of the new landscape. We haven't seen any significant runoff or recharge of the ponds and lakes locally, unlike further north, where Frick Winery (in Dry Creek, Sonoma County) posted the dramatic changes to one of their local ponds on their Facebook page. Hopefully, with the next series of storms, we'll see the same.
Another rain impact: bad tasting day?
I read with interest W. Blake Gray's post The Day Wine Tasted Bad on his blog The Gray Report. He describes a day (pouring down rain) where he opened bottle after bottle, looking for one that tasted good. We've had this happen to us in the cellar, where wines that we know we liked all started disappointing us in one way or another. It seems to happen more often when the weather is changing, and we've learned to call it a day early rather than make irrevocable decisions on days like this. There are believers who would attribute this to the Biodynamic calendar, but it's always seemed more plausible to us that it's somehow meteorologic. In any case, Blake, you're not alone. Read more »
A Year in the Life
Congratulations to our neighbors Law Estate Wines, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of opening their tasting room this week. If you haven't been to visit them yet, in their beautiful tasting room at the crest of Peachy Canyon Road, you should make a point to. And when you do, please wish them Happy Anniversary. (Meanwhile, it's worth following them on Facebook, where they routinely post some great photos.)
Food for Thought (Drink for Thought?): Drinking Better
Finally, a piece in LA Weekly's Squid Ink blog got some well-deserved play around the internet. Drink Better Wine, Start a Revolution is a clarion call by author Besha Rodell to consumers to demand better from their wine retailers. She concludes: "And so, Millennials of America, as well as anyone else who has found themselves drinking that bottle of Two Buck Chuck and realizing that you are basically only tolerating something that you know little about, not truly enjoying it, I implore you: Drink better wine. Make it imperative that Vons should have decent wine if they want your business. Or, better, hit up the small shops around town that really do all the work for you." Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Read the article »
Last week, we debuted the Weekly Roundup, news from around the wine community that we thought worth sharing with you. It's an admittedly eclectic mix, but we feel each thing that we've chosen warrants few minutes of your time. It's also a work in progress, so please share in the comments what you like, and what you'd like to see different. This week's list:
Some Great Press for Paso Robles and our new AVAs
The Tasting Panel's Anthony Dias Blue visited Paso recently, just before Sunset's Savor the Central Coast in September. His article concludes with an exciting evaluation of our great town: "this sleepy region, once home to a few obscure, under-the-radar wineries, has transformed itself into the most exciting wine region in California". The article also recommends wines from 15 top Paso Robles wineries, including our 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc and 2012 Mourvedre. Read more »
On of our favorite blogs for the week came from Wine Spectator editor Mitch Frank, whose piece Wine Can Be So Complicated — And That's OK was a notably thoughtful musing set against the background of the recent approval of 11 new AVAs here in Paso Robles. His conclusion -- that "while wineries, and journalists, need to work hard to make wine inviting for newcomers, that doesn't mean erasing what makes wine like few other beverages—it comes from someplace specific" sums up our thoughts pretty well. I'm quoted in the article, and submitted a comment with a few more of my thoughts on the subject. Read more »
Something from Tablas Creek
It was fun on Veterans Day to see the tributes to the many veterans in the wine community flowing through our social media feeds (for the intersection of the #wine and #veteransday hashtags on Twitter, check out this link). We posted this 1944 Navy photo of Robert Haas, all of 17 years old at the time. A sincere thank you to him and to all the many veterans and servicemembers, current and past, who have impacted our lives so substantially.
A Glimpse Behind the Scenes into the Business of Wine
Wine marketer, expert blogger and consumer advocate Tom Wark was interviewed by ReasonTV, and the 3-minute video that resulted is posted on YouTube. I spend a fair amount of time trying to shine some light on some of the more convoluted and counterintuitive laws that govern how wine is sold around the United States in my Legislation and Regulation series. Tom's opening salvo: that "the only way to get them to begin to be repealed and reformed is to bring them to light" is absolutely spot on. Watch the interview »
We've been posting lots of photos of our fall foliage. The photo above, which our friends at Cass Winery posted on their Facebook page, is one of the most impressive we've seen. Too good not to share!
Food for Thought (Beverage for Thought?)
We'll conclude this week with an article by Lettie Teague in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Dark Horse Wines: Great Finds in Odd Places. As a winery who chose what was, at the time, an odd place (Paso Robles) to make odd wines (southern Rhone-style blends), we find comfort in her conclusion that because gatekeepers will naturally tend toward the conservative, "wine drinkers themselves must ultimately be the ones to pursue the unexpected, to eschew the tried-and-true". She also suggests 5 wines, including one (a Pinot Noir from South Africa) imported by Vineyard Brands. Read more »