A Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour

Over the last year, I've probably spent more time taking pictures in our vineyard than ever before. Part of the reason is because I'm here all the time; in pre-Covid times I would usually be on the road a week or two each month. I've barely left the county since last March. But more importantly, the pandemic has reinforced to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. Even as our tasting room gets back to normal (we're re-opening indoors July 2nd, if you haven't heard) the reality is that only a tiny percentage of our fans will visit us any week or month. If I can make the experience of being here tangible to people, wherever they are, that's an effort worth making.

June doesn't see the landscape change much, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were just in the middle of flowering. Now the berries, on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are growing fast:

Grenache Clusters

A photo of Bourboulenc gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. We've since been in to shoot-thin this jungle, opening up the canopy to light and air, but the vineyard's health is evident from scenes like these:

Bourboulenc block

We've been using the mild early summer weather to get a few new insectaries established in our low-lying areas. These sections will be home to a handful of species of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects. We'll keep them blooming all summer, so the insect population can get and stay established: 

Beneficial insect planting

I took a swing through our Muscardin block. We harvested a tiny Muscardin crop last year off of the 200 vines that we grafted over in 2019, which amounted to just a single carboy (five gallons) in the cellar. We grafted another 750 vines last year. We'll get some fruit off those new grafts, and a much healthier crop off of what we grafted that first year. You can see how well the grafts have taken (below left) and the nice crop level (below right). We're excited to have enough Muscardin in 2021 to maybe even bottle.

Muscardin grafts year 3 Muscardin canopy

One initiative that we've been focused on this year has been to reduce the tillage in our trellised blocks. We don't feel we have a choice in the dry-farmed blocks, but this Syrah block is a great example of where we just mowed and baled the cover crop for our flock, but left the roots of the grasses undisturbed between the vine rows. We're expecting this to have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions.

Syrah block

Another is our estate biochar production. We've been collecting the canes, vine trunks, and fallen wood from the creekbed and have been using an old stainless steel tank as a biochar kiln. Biochar is a remarkable soil amendment, and has additional benefits in water retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality, as its production eliminates the need for burn piles:

Biochar

We're also replanting. In the photo above, you can see in the background a hillside that we pulled out three years ago because we'd lost so many vines to gophers, virus, and trunk disease. It's been sitting fallow ever since, until now. Just last week, we planted new rows of Grenache and Syrah, alternating rows because we're planning to try something new: trellising the Syrah high and vertically so that they can help shade the Grenache and keep it from being bleached by the sun. But that's for next year; these vines just went in the ground:

New plantings - Cote Maduena

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. You can see the contrast between Syrah (below left) which we expect to harvest in early September, and Counoise (right) which likely won't come in until mid-October:

Syrah clusters

Counoise clusters

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this quince is one of several trees with a heavy crop. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall.

Quince tree

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the new dry-farmed Cinsaut block that we planted two years ago in the site of one of our old rootstock fields. It's looking great, with clusters on many of the vines. In the background is our oldest Syrah block, which I wrote about earlier this spring because we're trying to build its vine density through layering. In between is our compost pile, and behind that our biochar prep area. This one photo encapsulates our past and our future. We're excited about both. 

New Cinsaut block


Flowering 2021: So Far, So Good As the 2021 Growing Season Kicks Off

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were looking at something of a "normal" season this year. Flowering, which began a couple of weeks ago but which has proceeded slowly, confirms that we're still tracking neither notably ahead nor behind what we'd expect, under something close to ideal conditions. Given that we're are roughly at flowering's mid-point, I thought it would be interesting to check on our main red varieties, from most advanced to least. So, starting with Grenache, the only grape on which you can see the beginnings of actual berries:

Flowering 2021 - Grenache

The Syrah is close on Grenache's heels, looking good, already showing its signature cylindrical cluster shape: 

Flowering 2021 - Syrah

The Counoise is actually a bit ahead of where I was expecting it. Often late to sprout and flower, in synch with Mourvedre, it appears a little ahead of usual this year:

Flowering 2021 - Counoise

And finally, Mourvedre, whose flower clusters are formed, but which hasn't yet started to bloom:

Flowering 2021 - Mourvedre

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear.

Flowering marks the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so provides confirmation for our assessment that 2021 has so far been something very close to an "average" year, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights. For these purposes, we measure the growing season as beginning April 1st. The first 53 days of the growing season (through yesterday) compared to the same dates in past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights < 32°F
2011 383 0 24 4
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
Average 2011-2020 480 2.9 19 1.1
2021 499 2 13 2

So, 2021 has been just a touch warmer than average, but with fewer days above 90 and fewer days that didn't make it out of the 60s than our ten-year average. Two frost nights, but only minimal damage and only in a couple of blocks. That's a pretty solid beginning.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. It has been dry but a bit breezy over the past couple of weeks. It's too early to know if this has impacted flowering, but we're cautiously optimistic.

Flowering is the second of the four viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:

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

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom until the sometime in mid-June.

So far, so good. Full steam ahead.

Flowering 2021


A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress

When you consider a winery's environmental footprint, what do you think of? Their vineyard certifications? Whether they're using recycled materials? How well insulated their winery building is? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the largest contributors to a winery's carbon footprint1 are the source of their energy, the weight of their bottles, the production of fertilizers and other inputs that go onto the vineyard, the transportation of the bottled wine, and the cover cropping and tillage decisions the vineyard makes.⁠

This fact was driven home to me by a series of really interesting conversations about wine and sustainability over on Twitter recently which barely touched on wineries' vineyard practices. Kathleen Willcox published a great article on liquor.com titled Why Packaging Is Wine’s New Sustainability Frontier in which she highlights what a large piece of the total environmental footprint of wine comes from its packaging. The same day, Johan Reyneke, the South African winemaker whose commitment to organic and biodynamic farming has made him an example in his homeland and around the world, shared a review by Jancis Robinson, MW which praised his Sauvignon Blanc but called him out for the dissonance of using a notably heavy bottle for a wine made with such environmental sensitivity:

Reyneke's owning of the criticism and pledge to do better produced a lot of questions from other posters wondering what the relative importance of inputs like bottles, vineyard practices, winery design, and transportation each produced. In response, Jancis shared the below graphic, taken from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's 2011 assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint of CA WineThe graphic shows the huge importance of the glass bottle in a winery's overall carbon footprint, but also highlights other areas where a winery seeking to improve should look. It spurred me to go, category by category, and examine how we rate. In each case, I've estimated our own footprint compared to the "average California winery" benchmark noted in the CSWA graphic, with an explanation of how I got to my assessment. Our goal, in a perfect world, would be to get to zero, which would represent a 100% savings vs. the benchmark. It's good to have goals!

Note that these are self-assessments; we will be looking to do a third party carbon audit sometime in the next year. I'll be interested to know how my own assessments are contradicted or confirmed by the official ones. But this is at least a start. If you're interested in how I've assigned grades, I've given us an "A" if our own footprint in a particular category represents a better than 40% savings over the benchmark average. I've given us a "B" when our practices produce a savings between 15% and 40%. As it would in real life, a "C" represents an "average" performance, between a 15% savings and 15% extra footprint. A "D" represents between 15% and 40% extra footprint, while an "F" grade would be a footprint more than 40% greater than the benchmark.

In the Vineyard: Overall Grade A- (Benchmark: 34; Our use: 17; Savings: 50% vs. benchmark)

  • Bio-geochemical field emissions: B- (Benchmark: 17; our use: 13) The CSWA's footnote defines this category as "Footprint associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of natural bio-geochemical processes and impacted by local climate, soil conditions, and management practices like the application of nitrogen fertilizers." As we do not apply any nitrogen fertilizers, our impact here is likely smaller than average. We know because of our Regenerative Organic Certification audit that our soils are adding carbon content to the soil. The reduction in tillage and the resulting deeper root systems and more complicated microbial systems that we have been able to accomplish in recent years thanks to our flock of sheep likely also puts our total below average. On the negative side, sheep are themselves sources of methane, which likely mitigates some of the other positive contributions they make. I will be interested to learn the balance here when we get our formal audit. Does being carbon-negative outweigh the environmental impact of the flock's methane? I am less certain of this grade than any other in this list. Are we doing "A" work? Maybe! Is it actually a "C"? I hope not!
  • Fuel production and combustion: D+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 4) Although the sheep have allowed us to reduce tractor passes, organic farming still requires more tractor work than conventional chemical farming. We also use propane in the spring to power our frost fans, though we've been lucky that we haven't had many near-freezing spring nights in recent years. Our reduced tillage in recent years is a positive factor. But I'm guessing we're at or below average in this one category compared to the average California winery. Luckily, it's a small factor overall. 
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 4; our use: 0) About the only use of electricity in the vineyard is to power our well pumps. Given that we irrigate minimally compared to most wineries and that more than a third of our vineyard is dry-farmed, I'm guessing our power draws are well below average. But, most importantly, we expect that the installation of our fourth bank of solar panels last month will get us to 100% solar powered. So, this (and our winery power needs) should be near zero.
  • Raw materials production: A (Benchmark: 10; our use: 0) Because we've been farming organically since our inception, our carbon footprint for the production and transport of materials like fertilizer and pesticides has always been low. What's more, we have been working to eliminate one outside input after another in recent years. Our sheep have allowed us to eliminate even the application of organic fertilizers or outside compost. Our cultivation of beneficial insect habitat has reduced our need to intervene against pests to near zero. We've even been producing our own Biodynamic preps on site. I think we've basically eliminated this category of carbon input at Tablas Creek.

In the Winery: Overall Grade A (Benchmark: 15; Our use: 2; Savings: 87% vs. benchmark)

  • Fuel production and consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 1) We've moved entirely to electric-powered forklifts in the winery, which means they're fueled by our solar array. Same with our refrigeration. Really the only fuel we're using in production now is the transport of grapes to the vineyard, and with our estate vineyards located at the winery and our purchased grapes representing only about 30% of our production, I figure that our use of fuel is 80%-90% less than the California average.
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 0) The fourth bank of solar panels here, as in the vineyard, should reduce this to zero this year. I've said for a long time that if there is a natural resource that Paso Robles has in abundance, it's sun. This feels like an area in which every winery should be investing; there are good tax credits available to help with the up-front costs, and the return on the investment even without them is in the 15-year range.   
  • Other winery: C+ (Benchmark: 1; our use: 1) The CSWA footnote lists "transport of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, raw material production, refrigerant losses, and manufacturing waste treatment" in this category. We don't use much in the way of raw materials compared to the average winery (no yeasts, nutrients, etc., very few new barrels, no chemicals or additives). And our winery wastewater treatment is done using a wetland area that likely has positive carbon offsets from the water plants compared to an average winery wastewater facility. But I'm sure we have some refrigerant losses.

In our Packaging: Overall Grade B+ (Benchmark: 38; Our use: 25; Savings: 34% vs. benchmark)

  • Glass bottle: A-. (Benchmark: 29; our use: 17) I wrote a few years back about how our switch to lightweight bottles in 2009 saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass in nine years. I'm proud of the analysis that led to that choice, and also of the aesthetics of the bottle that we chose. And bottles make an enormous difference. In the CSWA's analysis, they published a graph (below) showing that the switch to a lightweight bottle would save 10% on a winery's overall carbon footprint, all by itself. That is because glass bottles are energy-intensive to produce and add significant weight to the product, which increase transportation costs later. Our bottles are also produced in America, at a factory outside Seattle. Given how many bottles are produced either in Europe, China, or Mexico, with the added costs of transport to California, I feel good about this. I also give us a little bump in our grade for this metric because we have for the last decade been selling a significant percentage (roughly a quarter most years until 2020) of our Patelin de Tablas in reusable stainless steel kegs, which Free Flow Wines (our kegging partner) estimates results in a 96% reduction in that package's CO2 footprint. So why don't we get an "A"? Even though our bottles are quite light, there are now even lighter bottles available than our 465 gram bottle. And we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all. I'm investigating that more seriously, although a move to that format would come with some significant challenges... not least that we'd be a wild outlier in terms of price; even our Patelin de Tablas would be double the price of the most expensive 3L bag-in-box at our local supermarket. But still, while there is more to do, I feel good about how we score in this, the most impactful of categories.

    CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight
  • Corrugate case box: B- (Benchmark: 6; our use: 5) We do use corrugated cardboard case boxes, and haven't really dug into this as a potential source of savings. We do, however, use entirely 12-bottle case boxes, unlike many higher-end wineries. There were a few years in the late 2000s where we switched our Esprit de Tablas tier of wines into 6-bottle cases, which essentially doubles the amount of cardboard needed per bottle. We made the decision back in 2012 to go back to all 12-bottle cases, and I'm happy we did. 
  • Other packaging: C+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 3) We don't do anything particularly unusual with other packaging. We use labels, capsules, and either corks or screwcaps. Our ratio of corks to screwcaps is probably about the industry average. At least we aren't using any synthetic corks, made from plastic in a manufacturing process. I feel like we can find some savings here with a little harder look.

Transport of Bottled Wine: Overall Grade D+ (Benchmark: 13; Our use: 16; Extra footprint: 23% of benchmark)

  • Transport of bottled wine: D+ (Benchmark: 13; our use: 16) I wish that the CSWA had broken this out in more detail. On the one hand, our lighter bottles give us savings here. On the other hand, the 65% of our production that we sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) means that a higher percentage of our wine than the industry average is shipped via UPS and FedEx. Those DTC shipments require extra cardboard in the form of sturdy pulp shippers, and are in many cases being shipped via air rather than ground. We don't feel we have a choice here given that wine is perishable and fragile, and it needs to get to our customers in good condition. But I worry about the environmental costs. We have started, for our wine club shipments, sending the wine that will go to customers east of the Rockies via truck to staging warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can be packed into shipping boxes and shipped ground. But that hasn't proven feasible for our daily shipping. I do give us some credit for eliminating styrofoam packaging more than fifteen years ago, but I think it's likely that any winery that sells two-thirds of their production direct is going to have an above-average carbon footprint from wine transport given that DTC sales made up just 10% of total sales of California wine pre-pandemic. 

Adding up my back-of-the-envelope assessments leads to a total footprint estimate of 60% of the baseline (18+1+25+16). Our lighter bottles and solar arrays account for most of that improvement.2 That's pretty good, but it's clear that we have additional work that we can be doing across our business. My biggest questions, which I hope that our audit will help answer, revolve around whether we can sequester enough carbon with better viticulture to offset a significant amount of what happens after the wine gets bottled. If we're going to get our carbon footprint really low, can we do that with our own property? Or have we made most of the improvements we can already, and will we need to look toward offsetting the carbon in a different way?

I don't know the answer to this yet, but I'm committed to finding out.

Final Grade: B+/A- (Benchmark: 100; Our use: 60; Savings: 40% vs. benchmark)

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to recognize that carbon footprint is just one measurement of care of the environment. Others, which I feel we do well on, include fostering of plant, animal, insect and microbial biodiversity; reduction of non-biodegradable waste; protection of habitat; and elimination of chemicals and toxins.
  2. If I were a winery starting fresh at looking at my carbon footprint, installing solar arrays and reducing the weight of my bottles would absolutely be my first avenues of attack. Both offer immediate returns on investment both environmentally and financially. 

Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

In late February, with the vineyard turning greener by the day, I wrote a blog Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now. Breaking news - it's still gorgeous. That late-February time frame marked the beginning of a period of explosive growth in the cover crops, with plenty of moisture in the ground from our massive late-January storm and steadily lengthening days. With March came warm weather, and those cover crops have been joined by bursts of color from wildflowers like the mustard below:

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

As if that weren't enough, the grapevines themselves have gotten into the act. Not every variety is very far out, but Grenache is putting on a show, the new leaves an electric yellow-green:

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

Another view (Grenache again) against the darker green of the oaks is even more dramatic:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

Speaking of the oaks, the ones in the vineyard provide a great counterpoint to the geometry of the vine rows. I particularly like this one in the middle of our original Counoise block. Here are two views, the left taken from below, and the right from above:

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

These photos all make it look like it's all blue skies and sun, but when I took these out in the vineyard yesterday morning, it was 42 degrees and wet after a foggy start to the day. The block and tree in the below photo is the same as in the two previous ones, but in this one I was looking east, toward the rising sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

That moisture is visible too in this photo of our straw-bale tractor barn, with a new Cinsaut block in the foreground:

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

Maybe my favorite photo of the day was another one looking east, this one over our oldest Grenache block (planted in 1992) down a hill and back up on the other side to a slightly younger Grenache block (planted in 1997), new growth glowing in the sun:

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

I'll leave you with one last photo, of a long view south from the top of that Grenache block visible in the background of the previous photo. It's all on display: the rolling hills, the riot of green, and the newly-sprouted vines, all set off by the rows of dirt where we've begun to task of taming that cover crop so it doesn't compete with the vines for water:

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

If you're coming for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

One of the challenges of having a vineyard that is approaching middle age is the accumulated toll of vine loss. In our oldest blocks, which are approaching 30 years old, the combined impacts of gophers, trunk diseases, virus, and our stressful environment means that we've lost between 10% and 40% of the vines. And it doesn't take anything catastrophic to get to those numbers. Imagine a 2% vine mortality (one in every 50 vines) per year. After 10 years, you've lost 18% of your vines. After 20 years, you've lost 33%. And after 30 years, you've lost 45%. That's just math.

Replanting missing vines among those that have survived is usually an unsatisfactory response to this vine loss, for a couple of reasons. The roots of the vines that survive tend to encroach into the space of any missing vines, which makes it difficult to get the new vine established. And because we're trying to dry-farm our mature blocks, getting the new vines the water that they need to get established tends to work at cross-purposes to the vine training that we're doing, encouraging surface root growth from established vines, which is a waste of their resources. 

The difficulty in getting new vines established among the older vines has meant that we've lived with lower and lower vine density in our older blocks. That comes through in lower yields. Looking at the yield per acre the last few years on these varieties compared to our average in the 2000's shows the cumulative impact. Last decade, Mourvedre averaged 2.8 tons/acre. Over the last five years it's averaged 2.2. Counoise in the 2000's also averaged 2.8 tons/acre but has declined in recent years to 2.5. Syrah has declined from 3.4 tons/acre to 2.6. And even Grenache, typically the most vigorous and productive, has seen average yields decline from 4.3 tons/acre last decade to 3.9 over the last five years. 

Because of the challenge of establishing new vines among the old, we're left with the difficult choice of when to pull the plug and pull out an entire block to start fresh. If the surviving vines are struggling, or the blocks were planted to the wrong variety or on the wrong rootstock, it's worth the sacrifice to pull them out and replant. We're in that process in a few blocks. Each has its own story.

  • One was originally a Viognier block that we planted in an area that turned out to be one of our frostiest. By the time that we realized that and grafted the block over to the late-budding Mourvedre, even the vines that survived were weakened by the years of frost damage.   
  • Another was a block that had originally been planted in 1992 to California-sourced Mourvedre (Mataro) clones. We decided in 2003 because of dissatisfaction with the ripening of these clones to graft the block over to our French Mourvedre clones, but that didn't fix the issue. It might have been a rootstock incompatibility issue, or a virus problem. In the end, we decided to start fresh.
  • Finally, the third block that we pulled out included Syrah that we made the mistake of pruning during wet weather one year back in the 1990s, and we've been struggling with fungal trunk diseases ever since. We lost some vines, but even the ones that survived were weakened. Again, it seemed to make sense to start from scratch.

Layering diagramBut what to do about a block that's missing 40% of the vines, but still making some of our favorite wines? We're trying out a new technique to build vine density in a couple of these blocks. It's called layering. Really, it's an old technique, and takes advantage of the fact that grapevines have the ability to reproduce asexually. If you bury a grapevine cane, each bud has the ability to sprout roots. The connection to the parent vine helps nourish the new vine while those roots get established. Eventually, you can cut the connecting cane and the new vine will grow on its own. Wikipedia has a simple diagram of the process (right).

A few pictures of how we're doing this at Tablas Creek will help illustrate. First a photo of the block where we're trying this: an old Syrah block, planted in 1992 and 1994. You can see that we're missing a lot of vines, probably close to 40% overall:

Syrah block with layering

What we've done is to extend an extra cane, beyond what we're using for the vine to produce fruit that year, from a healthy vine, and then bury it underground and bring it back up in the position of a missing vine:

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

Those new vines will grow, supported by the established root systems of their parent vines, for another couple of years. At that point we can choose to cut the connecting cane or leave it. This can in theory be done infinitely: one vine being layered into another, into another, and another. We've heard stories about entire acres being propagated in this way from a single starting vine. We don't plan on anything so extreme, but if we can rebuild the vine density in some of our favorite old blocks without having to pull out our old vines, that's a huge win for us. We'll be looking at the success of this effort in this Syrah block, and if it works, applying it to other blocks that might benefit. Stay tuned!

Syrah block - latering sprouting


Budbreak as a Metaphor for Life in 2021: We All Emerge from Dormancy, Slowly

This winter, record-breaking storm in January notwithstanding, has been chilly and dry. The storm systems that have made their way to us outside of that one historic one have tended to be duds, dropping just a few tenths or hundredths of an inch of rain. The cause of this, according to meteorologists, has been the return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of high pressure that was a regular occurrence in our 2012-2016 drought. This long-wave weather pattern is characterized by a powerful high pressure system that sets up in the north Pacific, diverting storms that would otherwise impact California into the Pacific Northwest. The net result has been a lot of very dry months this winter:

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

The main difference between this year's ridge and the one in our 2012-16 drought (particularly the one that characterized the 2013-14 and 2014-15 winters) is that this year's set up further west. A high pressure system set up over or just west of California leads to dry, warm weather. But this year's was far enough west to produce a recurring pattern in which storms rotating around the ridge tended to pass just east of California, pummeling the Rocky Mountains with snow, bringing arctic weather as far south as Texas, and producing dry but cold conditions in California. A look at the number of below-freezing days this winter shows that this was one of our frostier recent seasons, with 41 below-freezing readings at our weather station so far. This number ties for our most since 2012-13, and we still have nearly two months of potentially frosty nights to go:

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

As recently as week-before-last, we were chased inside during our blending trials by hail, and we had nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s the morning of March 16th. But the last few days have felt different. It's been a week since our last frost night. And after nearly a month where daytime highs didn't get out of the 60s, Saturday hit 76, Sunday hit 80, and Monday hit 77. So, I wasn't surprised to see a lot of budbreak when I got out into the vineyard this morning. Viognier was the most advanced:

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. This year, it seems like lots of the grapes are going at once. I saw sprouting in Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, and even Counoise (below):

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

Budbreak 2021 is happening at an average time, historically, and at almost exactly the same time as last year. We've had some extremes in recent years; we're a month later than our record-early 2016, but two weeks earlier than our latest-ever start to the season in 2012, when we saw 57 frost nights, 21 after February 1st. Here's our information for when we first recorded significant budbreak the last dozen years:

2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. And even with the quick start, more than half the vineyard is still dormant. This Roussanne bud is indistinguishable from what it would have looked like in January:

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

Budbreak happens when it does largely due to increases in soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are waiting for the annual signals that it's safe to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. The colder the temperatures and the more water in the soils, the longer the vines stay dormant. As winter rains ease, days lengthen, and the sun becomes more intense, those soils start to warm up, and the vines begin a race to reproduce. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing risks and benefits. Emerge too early, and they risk suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost. Sprout too late, and they might not have enough time to ripen their fruit, which is necessary so that animals eat it and distribute the seeds.

We worry about frost too. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. But once they sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and because of how evenly the vineyard appears to be coming out of dormancy, we're already likely past the point where we could safely withstand even a moderate frost. 

We'll be trying to stay one step ahead of the new growth to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, last week was their last pass through the Grenache block below. We may only have another week or so in the late-sprouting varieties, but we'll give as many blocks as possible one last graze:

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. Is it possible that the same conditions that keep a vineyard dormant longer in the spring raise the risks of frost damage once they finally do sprout? I think so. California weather patterns tend to be long-wave patterns, where conditions are more likely to be similar to what they are now in two weeks than to have changed entirely. Of course, it's spring, which is the most unpredictable season here. We'll see.

Looking forward, we should be OK for this week, with warm, dry weather in the forecast. Next week it looks like it might be wet. It's often in the aftermath of spring storm systems that frost risk builds. So, while we would love more rain, we'll be on high alert after. Fingers crossed, please.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. We've all spent the last year in various forms of dormancy, trying to keep sheltered and safe. With the hopefulness of declining Covid case rates in California, expanding supply of and access to vaccines, and good government support as businesses reopen, I feel like we're all coming out of hibernation. I have high hopes for this year. Please join me in welcoming the 2021 vintage.

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

I took a walk yesterday across Las Tablas Creek and up the section of our property that we're calling Jewel Ridge, named after a great old vineyard dog who we buried there. This is the parcel that we bought a decade ago, knowing that we wouldn't need it for five years at least, because land this good, contiguous with our property, doesn't come on the market according to your schedule. So, we bought it, and have spent the last decade building up the soils, using it as a convenient staging zone for our flock when they can't be in the vineyard, and slowly mapping out the new blocks. A quick panoramic from the top, looking west, will give you an overview:

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You can see how green things are getting after the foot of rain we received in late January. This view, looking under one of the walnut trees that we kept (the whole property was a dry-farmed walnut orchard when we bought it) shows it even more clearly. The stakes you see are for us to plant later this winter.

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The ridgetop has spectacular views on three sides, and also looks to us like some of the best vineyard land in the area. We've already planted some Mourvedre and Grenache. The whole property will be head-trained and dry-farmed, following the model that we've loved so much on our Scruffy Hill parcel.

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Almost the entire property is steep, with slopes as much as 30%. That's a bit of a challenge for farming, but nothing we haven't figured out already. This view of the east-facing slope of Jewel Ridge is representative. 

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The highlight of the property is a west-facing natural amphitheater. I took the panoramic photo I shared first looking straight west over that bowl, but because of the panoramic distortion it's hard to see the land's curves. This shot of Sadie halfway down the slope maybe shows it more clearly:

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Another perspective, looking south across the top of the bowl, gives you a different slice. You can see some of the vines we planted last year, tied to the stakes in the middle ground. We hope to get our first small crop off this parcel in 2023.

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As I was walking back, I caught this photo of the moon rising over the west slope of Jewel Ridge. The colors at this time of year (deep blue sky, occasional puffy white clouds, cream-colored rocks, dark brown vines, and bright yellow-green cover crop) is my favorite. 

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One of the appeals of the property to us was the lake that the previous owner's father created in the 1950s by damming up Las Tablas Creek. In the long term, we're exploring how we might use this water to frost protect more of the property. In the short term, it's a lovely spot, with ducks swimming on the surface: 

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Finally, maybe my favorite shot of the day, looking up from the creekbed toward our established vineyard, Sadie posing pastorally:

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We're excited that we've been able to start welcoming guests back to our tasting patio in the last month. If you're planning a trip to Paso Robles in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.


After a Foot of Rain, the Green Comes Fast

Normally, early February is already notably green. In a typical year, we'd get our first rain in November sometime, with more every week or two through December and January. By this time, you'd expect it to look something like this photo below, taken in early February of 2019:

Green Scruffy Hill February 2019

Not so much, this year. You can see in the photos that I shared in my blog recapping last week's storm that it was almost entirely brown still in the vineyard. The roughly inch and a half of rain we'd received wasn't enough to germinate either the native seeds or the cover crop we'd planted. But with over a foot of rain last Tuesday through Friday, and mostly sunny weather since, the vineyard's transformation from brown to green is happening fast. Here are a few photos that will give you a sense. First, a shot looking up down and back up between two rows of Grenache Blanc toward the western part of the vineyard:

Crosshairs new Green

A little further west, in a head-trained Grenache block, a similar carpet is appearing:

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On a steeper part of the same vineyard block, you can see how we pull the Yeoman's Plow across the slope to slow the flow of water downhill and encourage absorption rather than surface flow:

Head trained vines with yeomans plow lines
A longer view of that same block shows the new green growth even more clearly:   

Crosshairs head trained new green

Despite our late start, I'm not worried that we'll miss out on a significant amount of the organic matter that the cover crops create. Even in a normal year, December and January aren't great months for cover crop growth, with their regularly below-freezing nights and short days. It's not until late February, as the days get longer and warmer, that the cover crop really gets going. But from here on out, I expect the view to change by the day. Annual plants in California are always in a hurry to take advantage of the rainy season to build root and leaf systems, create carbohydrates, and then go to seed, all before the summer's heat and dry conditions take over. The rain may have come a couple of months late, but the cover crops are going to look like they're trying to make up for lost time. And views like this last one, looking at the setting sun through our olive trees, are only going to get greener by the day.

Sunset Olive Trees and New Green

I look forward to sharing the ongoing transformation with you.


Assessing the Historic January 2021 Winter Storm on California's Central Coast

I sit here in my office at the vineyard, looking at a sunny landscape outside, listening to birdsong coming in through my open window. It could be a California Chamber of Commerce commercial. What a change from the last 72 hours, during which we saw the largest storm in our 31-year history drop 12.71" of rain on us. For perspective, that's almost half of what we expect to receive in a normal year (26") and 828% of the total that we'd received so far since fall. Since we installed our weather station in 1996, we've had just five months that exceeded the rain we received in this storm.

Before I dive into how the rain came down, what things look like now, and what we think its long-term impacts will be, let me set the stage. I wasn't out here the past two days, but Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi took a break from overseeing a bottling run we couldn't reschedule to capture this great photo of our flock sheltering under our solar panels during the height of the storm Wednesday:

Sheep huddling under solar panels in storm

The rain started Tuesday around 8pm, with four-hundredths of an inch that hour. Both rain and wind built in intensity, with our strongest gust (40.8mph) coming at 4am Wednesday. That hour was also the first hour where we got over a quarter-inch of rain. We would exceed that total for the next 22 hours, ending 2am Thursday. By that point we had accumulated 9.42" of rain, nearly double the 5.36" that we would expect in an average January. At that point the rain slowed down, but we had measurable rainfall every hour for another 20 hours, ending at 10pm Thursday evening and picking up another 3.02". And while the bulk of the storm had moved past us, we did get some more showers early Friday morning, accumulating an extra 0.27" in total. The final tally of 12.71" is the most we've ever seen from one storm, eclipsing the 9.6" we received in one storm in October of 2009

What drove this storm? A meteorological phenomenon called an atmospheric river, where a relatively narrow plume of moisture stretches from southwest to northeast across the Pacific, funneling tropical moisture toward the California coast. This is different than a typical storm, which is centered around a low pressure system and rotates counter-clockwise. While those storms can bring intense rainfall, they don't generally pummel the same spot for hours on end. Atmospheric rivers are a critical part of California's water systems, and even moderate atmospheric rivers can produce significant coastal rainfall and Sierra Nevada snow. Powerful atmospheric rivers can bring staggering amounts of precipitation, refilling reservoirs and aquifers but also causing flooding and mudslides. A satellite photo shared by the Western Weather Group, which provides forecasts for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, shows the storm system clearly:

Atmospheric River Satellite Image

Remarkably, this picture could have been taken any time Wednesday or Thursday, as the plume of moisture barely moved for two days. The Adelaida area where we are was the center of the storm's bullseye, accumulating triple or quadruple the already-significant totals that most of the rest of the AVA saw. And that water adds up. Our area drains into Lake Nacimiento, and the storm raised the lake's level by 24 feet since Tuesday, and its capacity from 21% to 39%. That may not sound like much, but it's a massive lake whose surface area grew by 1,000 acres since Tuesday, adding more than 21 billion gallons to its volume. 

I got out into the vineyard today, and found that it held up better than I'd feared it would to this onslaught of rain. As you would expect given that it had been so dry that our cover crops weren't well established yet, there was some surface erosion in some of our blocks, like this Cinsaut planting:

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 Or at the edge of this old block containing Counoise and Mourvedre:

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The roads, which are less porous than the vineyards, are always at greater risk of erosion. That's true both in the case of unimproved roads, like this one running down from our old nursery buildings toward Last Tablas Creek:

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And even on the vineyard roads where we laid straw to slow the flow of water and limit erosion the many hours of flowing water were enough to overwhelm our preparations:

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The calcareous soils that underlie Tablas Creek are so absorbent that the vast majority of the water soaked in. I only found one vineyard block that had any standing water in it: a head-trained Grenache block near the north end of the property:

Standing Water after January 2021 storm

But most of the vineyard looked like it was in great shape. This old Grenache block is representative:

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The water that did run off ended up in Las Tablas Creek, eventually flowing into Lake Nacimiento. Today, the creek was hardly a raging torrent:

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That relatively gentle flow, even on the last day of a historic storm, should tell you one more thing in addition to providing evidence of how absorbent our soils are. This winter, up until now, has been exceptionally dry. Normally, by the end of January we'd expect to have received about 13.5" of rain. Before this storm hit, our winter total sat at a paltry 1.37". Thanks to our recent atmospheric river, we've recovered from about 10% of normal rainfall to about 105% of normal rainfall. But even with this storm, what we've seen is only about average for a winter at this point.

What's next? Hopefully, a few days of sun to transfer the water from saturated surface soils to deeper layers, and to give the cover crop a chance to get growing. We have gotten a little growth, but it's variable and nowhere particularly well established. This section, which we left fallow this year in preparation for a new Mourvedre planting this spring, is probably the farthest along:

New Green Growth 2021

But before too much longer, we'd like some more rain. It looks like there's a little in the forecast for next week. A moderate storm of a couple of inches every 10 days or so would be just about perfect. If you've got sway with any weather gods, please let them know.

Meanwhile, we'll be grateful that we've made up three months of rainfall deficit in three days. We'll be looking forward to the vineyard being noticeably greener in under a week. And we'll be listening to the splash and burble of Las Tablas Creek flowing after 10 dry months. It may not be rushing torrent, but it's a more than healthy start.

Las Tablas Creek


The vineyard in January, from four perspectives

Over the roughly ten day break that encompassed Christmas, New Year's, and the weekends on either end, I had what I thought was a good idea for helping provide some structure to our family. At the beginning of the stretch, each of the four of us suggested two indoor activities and two outdoor activities. We then laid these 16 activities out across the vacation, taking into account closures, weather, and giving us room to take a day off if we felt overscheduled. No one got veto power, so if Sebastian (age 13) wanted the whole family to play Mario Kart... that's what we did. If Eli (age 15) wanted to get breakfast burritos in Cambria and take the dog to the beach... that was our plan for a morning. If Meghan wanted the family to watch Queen's Gambit... we did that too. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Everyone got into the spirit of it.

One of the things that I put on the list was to go out and do a photographic exploration of the vineyard. All of us, to one degree or another, enjoy taking pictures. But since we don't live on the property (we live in town) I'm the only one who's regularly out there documenting what things look like. So, on New Year's Day, we headed off around 3pm to catch the low light and the setting sun. I didn't dictate where in the vineyard everyone went, or try to keep us together, because I know that I have a handful of routes I tend to return to when I'm out taking pictures, and I didn't want that to become everyone's default. I also didn't suggest any particular content or narrative, for the same reason.

I thought that what came of the ramble was really fun. Here's a look at three of my favorite photos from each of us that we took that afternoon.

Eli (Age 15)
We'll start with this photo of one of the vineyard oak trees, with the thin wintery sun shining through some clouds behind it. Both Seb and I took very similar photos of this same tree, but I think this one is the best:

Eli - Oak tree in with winter clouds

Next, a photo of Sadie running through the vineyard. Again, I love the wintery quality of the light that Eli captured, and the manic joy of running dog:

Eli - Sadie running

Finally, a photo of a flock of birds that he caught mid-liftoff. I love the framing of this, and the fact that the whole thing, from unpruned vines to birds in flight, feels wild:

Eli - Birds over vines

Sebastian (Age 13)
I could have filled this entire blog with pictures of the dog that Seb took. But I wanted to highlight his vision of the vineyard instead, starting with this photo of one of the oak trees at the top of the property's highest hill. I love the framing of this shot, with (yes) Sadie skulking around the base.

Seb - Oak tree and Sadie

The winter light was a common theme all of us explored, in one way or another. This photo of Seb's focuses on the clouds, olive trees in the foreground reduced to silhouettes:

Seb - Winter sun
And finally a panoramic Seb took looking up from a part of the property I walk past all the time but don't believe I've ever photographed: the base of our old nursery block, where we've recently converted some shade houses to a new wine storage building (one corner of which is barely visible at the far right):

Seb - Panoramic with olive trees

Meghan
It was hard for me to pick just three of Meghan's photos. But it wasn't hard to choose this portrait of Paco the alpaca, set off against the dry-laid stone of our animal enclosure, as one of the three:

Paco January 2021

After that, Meghan mostly took pictures in black and white. I love this one of our old vineyard truck, olive trees and grapevines in the background:

Meghan - Vineyard Truck B&W

I also loved her black and white photo of Sadie, merle swirling patterns on full display, with her one blue eye glowing white as she looks up our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Meghan - Sadie B&W

Me
I tried to take some shots from perspectives I don't usually pursue. This first one is looking north through an old Roussanne block, limestone rock in the foreground, unpruned vines in the late-day sun:

Unpruned Roussanne vines and limestone rock

We've started our vineyard pruning, but that's not the only thing we trim back each winter. Our fruit trees need to be pruned too, and I loved the geometry of this one, surrounded by new Cinsaut vines that I'm also really excited about:

Newly pruned fruit tree

I took a bunch of sunset-related shots on Scruffy Hill, some of which I've already shared to our social media. But this closeup of a Grenache vine with the multi-hued sky behind, was probably my favorite:

Grenache vine on Scruffy Hill at Sunset

I'll leave you with one more photo of Meghan's, looking up the Scruffy Hill block with me and the boys at the top, each looking for our shots.

Meghan - Scruffy with J E and S B&W

Happy new year, everyone!