An assessment of winter 2021-22 after our wettest December since 2004

It seemed like a good omen for this winter when we got several inches of rain in late October. Typically, winters where there's significant early rain (like 2004-05, 2009-10, or 2016-17) end up being drought-breakers, the sorts of years where you replenish aquifers and set your vineyard up for at least a couple of vintages. But then we had an almost-entirely-dry November, which combined with the moderate la nina conditions in place this year, suggested below-average rain. So it was with relief that the storm door opened the second week of December and directed a series of weather systems at the California coast. We got measurable rain twelve of the final nineteen days of the month for a total of 11.06 inches. That puts us at something like 175% of normal rainfall to date:

Rainfall by Month Winter 2021-22

With the storm door closed at the moment, it seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at what this rain means for the winter, and more relevantly this upcoming harvest's prospects. After two dry years, it's wonderful to see how incredibly green the vineyard is, grass growing fast now that the sun is out:

Tall grass and animal enclosure

After moving them to shelter during the biggest storm, both for their own safety and so they didn't compress the wet soil too much, the sheep are back in the vineyard enjoying all the new grass:

Sheep in nursery block

The early rain, and the cover crop growth it produced, allowed us to make a full rotation through the vineyard already. It's pretty cool walking through vineyard blocks and seeing the sheep manure from just a few weeks ago already nearly obscured by regrown grass:

Tall grass and sheep manure

The water we received, despite its volume, nearly all soaked in and saturated the absorbent limestone clay layers, with only a tiny fraction percolating into our watershed. Las Tablas Creek is flowing, but it's hardly a raging torrent:

Las Tablas Creek

Evidence of the abundance of moisture at the surface is provided by new growth of water-loving plants like mushrooms (left) and miner's lettuce (right):

Mushrooms Miners Lettuce

A little break of sun is welcome at this point. It will give the recent rain a chance to penetrate deeply and will super-charge the growth of the cover crop. We're hoping to get the sheep through two more full rotations through the vineyard before we have to move them out for budbreak, and it seems likely we'll be able to given the abundance of food.

Even better, this moisture came without any significant negative impacts. Because of the absorbency of our soils, we don't worry much about erosion in the vineyard. But I was pleased to see the impact of the erosion mitigation measures  we took to keep our roads in good shape. The photo below shows one of these: straw bales that we put in drainage areas to divert the water into the vineyard, where it could soak in, rather than continuing down roadsides:

Erosion mitigation

Overall, I'm feeling like we've gotten the beginning of winter we all were hoping for. We're ahead of schedule for water, already having exceeded the full-winter totals we've seen in recent years like 2013-14, 2014-5, and (most importantly) 2020-21, with more than half the rainy season still to come. We've already booked 13 below-freezing nights, which means that the vineyard is fully and truly dormant. The cover crops look like they're in for an outstanding year. 

What would an ideal second half of winter look like? A few weeks of sun, then a resumption of more rain in the second half of January. Continued periodic storms and frosty nights in February and March. And come early April, a smooth transition to more benign weather with no more frost, so budbreak can proceed uninterrupted. Can we do it? Time will tell. But we're off to a great start.


Yes, it does get cold in Paso Robles.

[Editor's note: With this blog, we introduce Austin Collins to the Tablas Creek blog audience. Cellar Assistant here at Tablas Creek since the beginning of 2019, Austin's history here on the property goes much further back than that, as our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins is his dad and he grew up here on property. Now with Neil having moved to town Austin is back living on-site, and I am very excited for you to get to see Tablas Creek through his eyes!]

By Austin Collins

Before I give you what you really want I feel that I am obliged to introduce myself. My name is Austin Collins, but most people refer to me simply as "Boo". While I am officially titled as a Cellar Assistant my role at Tablas Creek Vineyard was graciously expanded last year. I now have the unique honor of living on premises with my growing family as property caretaker. Because of this I get to spend a lot of time walking vine rows and spending some quality time with my Vitis neighbors. 

Most people know the undeniable heat that bears down on the soils of Paso Robles, but that's summer. This is winter. Along with the drop in temperature we have been blessed with a decent start to the rainy season. This week we had our second substantial rain event, which was immediately followed by a hard freeze. This combination transformed the land into a tundra like setting, frost gripping every surface before melting and dropping to the earth with the sun's first rays:

Image_50407937

It may seem like a shocking change for the vines to endure, and it is. But, that's something that makes the Paso Robles AVA so special. The buds for next year's vintage need a certain amount of chilling time to allow a timely and healthy budbreak in the spring:

IMG-2154

While the vines are entering their hibernation phase they are not the only ones out in the cold. Our cover crop, an essential cog in our farming system, is also battling the frost. We use a frost-hardy seed blend to allow plenty of time for our "coworkers", including this pea plant, to do their job for the soil:

Image_50739969

In the rows where cover crop is not seeded, native grasses hold claim. Unlike December of 2020 we already have a substantial growth of these native grasses covering the property:

Grass

With the native grasses and cover crops growing, our thoughts move to the 2022 growing season. But the past harvest still sits fresh in our minds. In fact the vineyard still hangs on as well. A few last second-crop clusters, left unpicked because they were unripe at harvest time, remain clutched to the canes:

Second

For this last photo I bring you to a special spot in the vineyard, one that I always find myself returning to. A lone willow tree that sits in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard. This Salix, a family of trees that thrive in riparian zones, is an indication of the moisture present underground even in our often-arid region:

Willow

Although it is a quiet time for viticulture work in the vineyard we cannot forget the work of the vines themselves. Storing intracellular energy to support the upcoming vintage, these cold times are vital to the wine that ends up on your table. Until spring comes I sit here on my stoop with my wife and newborn son on my lap -- the third Collins generation to live on this property -- enjoying the rain and hoping for more. We care for this land, and it is our purpose to do so. 


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful, Fall Edition

Three weeks ago, with the first clouds in the sky and the vineyard starting to change into its autumn colors, I caught some of this new beauty and shared it in a blog. Since then, we've gotten three inches of rain, without a frost. The result has been a new color palette, with green grass growing while the autumn colors deepen to auburn. Because we usually get a hard freeze before we get significant rain, it's rare and beautiful to have this green and golden brown combination:

Newly green vineyard

But that's not the only change. The moisture has meant that we've had a series of lovely foggy mornings out here, water dripping off the vines and settling on the new grass, sunlight softly diffused:

Fog lifting over new planting

I keep coming back to the spot from which I took the final photo in my last session, at the center of the vineyard looking west over a section of head-trained Mourvedre, one of my favorite rock walls, a new area of Biodynamic plantings, and a big oak tree. I particularly love the lines of hills receding toward the horizon:

Sunset over the center of the vineyard

The colors of the vines vary, but Counoise is always some of the most colorful. I love the contrast with the big old live oak that grows in the middle of this block:

Counoise and oak tree in the setting sun

One of the things we've done since we finished harvesting our grapes was complete our one-day olive harvest. I didn't get any photos of that, but the grey-green of the olive leaves makes a great contrast to the brighter colors of the vineyard (in this case, Tannat on the right):

Sunset through olive trees

I'll leave you with one more sunset photo, the late-afternoon light illuminating Syrah's fall colors. 

Sunset over Syrah

How long we'll have with this landscape is an open question. We have more rain forecast for next Tuesday, which will be great. There's a chance of a frost the night before, which would put an end to much of this color, but if we dodge it there's not another one on in the forecast. Could we keep these colors all the way to Thanksgiving? I don't know. But I'm going to enjoy them while they're here. If you're visiting Paso Robles in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat.    


Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now, Fall Edition

The seasons are definitely changing, and earlier this year than our last few. It's been cool and breezy during the day. Nights have already dropped near freezing several times. The grapevines have been coloring up like they think they're in New England. And (wonder of wonders) we have clouds:

View between Mourvedre and olive trees

Combine the clouds, the vineyard colors, the lower sun angles, and a touch of humidity in the air, and you have a landscape which is dramatic and beautiful. Witness this view, looking west over our oldest Grenache vines into the setting sun:

Looking west through oldest Grenache block

Most people think of wine country in summer, when you've got a high-contrast color palette. Bright blue sky. Dark green oaks. Golden hillsides. Winter and spring are their own kind of beautiful, softer and more yellow-green as the season's rainfall covers hillsides with green grasses and wildflowers. I've shared how much I love getting out into the vineyard to photograph those seasons. Fall can be over in just a few weeks, if you aren't paying attention. All you need is one frost, which usually comes in November sometime, and the colors fade to brown almost overnight. But for those few weeks it's glorious:

Long view looking south over Grenache

It's not just the vineyard. The low sun angles enrich the colors of the grasses, as you can see from this shot of a picnic table we've put at the top of our tallest hill:

Picnic table at the top of the hill

Panning back a little more allows the oak trees (beautiful in any season) to be contrasted against the sky, layered gold and robin's egg blue from the clouds and the setting sun:

Looking west through oak tree

One last photo, my favorite of the session, and one of my favorites I've ever taken out at the vineyard. You're more or less in the center of the vineyard, looking west past many of our Biodynamic plantings of flowering herbs and fruit trees, vines to the left turning color while the lines of hills march toward the horizon:

Center of the vineyard with clouds

We may only have another week or so of this landscape. Our first winter storm is forecast for this coming weekend, and if we get any significant wind with the rain, the leaves will likely come off the vines. The rain will begin the vineyard's next transformation from gold back to green. And we'll all celebrate the end of fire season. But if you have the good fortune to be here over the next week, you're in for a treat. If not, hopefully I've captured some of it for you to enjoy from home. 


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog


Veraison 2021 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip between a Late August and Early September Start to Harvest

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find the vineyard transformed by veraison. From bright green pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Grenache Head Trained Veraison

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison; in fact, Viognier is largely through. Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc will come next, and Picpoul and Roussanne will bring up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that these Viognier clusters are starting to pick up:

Viognier

The 2021 growing season has continued on the somewhat later-than-normal track that started back at budbreak in late March. We've largely avoided extremes so far, as we were on the southern fringes of the big heat spike that impacted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July. Still, those late-June weeks pushed our degree days well above the month's norms. July (average high 93.4F) has been just about average, historically. The growing season so far:

Degree Days 2021 vs Average

July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. The relatively moderate conditions have kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant, and the vines making steady progress toward harvest. We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until July 21st, but Syrah is moving fast now, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. This cluster is a little ahead of most (which I'd estimate at 50%), mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up:

Syrah Vertical

Mourvedre, even though it's always late to harvest, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Grenache. Although this is one of the more advanced clusters, it's probably 25% of the way through overall. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening:

Mourvedre

Grenache is the next most advanced. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Grenache Head Trained

Cinsaut is a little behind Grenache, at something like 5% of the way into veraison. Note the characteristic large, slightly ovoid berries:

Cinsaut

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find much color. This cluster, with a few pink-purple berries in a sea of green, is about as advanced as it gets. I'd estimate we're around 1% on Counoise, overall:

Counoise
It's important to note that while the veraison posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be a week or two so before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and more than a month until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat gave us just a five week interim. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2011 August 5 September 20 46
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (35 to 46 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 5th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. I asked Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg for what he was thinking about harvest and he noted the relatively light crop, which he attributed to smaller berries and clusters due likely to some combination of our dry, cold winter and some chilly weather during flowering. The light crop suggests that harvest will likely begin on the earlier end of the range above. But he was excited about the vines' health, and thought that we had everything in place for a harvest in good conditions with concentrated flavors.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. We'll use that time in the cellar to finish bottling the last of our 2019 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2020s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, now we wait. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Syrah veraison horizontal