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! 


A picture is worth 1000 words, late fall edition

With our tasting room closed again due to our Regional Stay Home Order, we've decided that it's more important than ever to share lots of photos to make sure that people can maintain a sense of what it's like out here. To that end, I was out yesterday walking around the vineyard to get some photos to share, and found it inescapable how dry it was. Often, by early December, we've gotten a couple of nice rainstorms, and the vineyard is already notably green. Not in 2020. It's been cold, which is good, because it forces the grapevines into dormancy, but we've only gotten a couple of small rainstorms, and nothing recently. I couldn't help but feel the stress of the grapevines I passed.

And yet, the annual cycle continues. I got one photo of a head-trained Mourvedre vine, roughly a decade old, that I thought was illustrative:

Head Trained Mourvedre Vine in Late Fall

Consider, if you will, the stresses that this and all our other vines have endured this year and endure, more or less, each year:

  • An almost total lack of topsoil. Our deepest topsoils are a couple of feet thick, and much of the property has the fractured calcareous shale you see right at the surface. 
  • Minimal rain for six months every summer and fall. Our total rainfall in the last 8 months is 0.8"⁠. That's a little extreme, but the average total May-October rainfall here at Tablas Creek over the last 25 years is just over two inches. Yes, our winters are wet. And yes, our soils do an amazing job retaining that winter rain. But this is a lot more extreme than anything grapevines have to deal with even in the driest parts of Europe.
  • Regular frosts in the winter. In the last month, it's dropped below freezing ten nights. That's not unusual; we average about 40 frost nights a year here, and though we've been lucky in recent years, spring freezes are the most significant annual weather threat we face. That too is more than Mediterranean regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape face.
  • Scorching summers. This summer, we had 21 days top 100. That was unusual; I wrote earlier this year how 2020 was the year where climate change felt real. But we average roughly a dozen 100+ days each year. And while the Mediterranean can get very hot, 90s are a lot more common than 100s there.

That Mourvedre vine has never had a drop of irrigation. There's not even any irrigation infrastructure in that block. And yet, each year it sprouts, flowers, ripens a crop, and stores what it needs for the next year. And out of this struggle comes grapes (and wines) of intensity and character. Deep roots that reflect the calcareous soils we love. Resilience and longevity.

It's not an easy life, but we wouldn't have it any other way.


Down to the Roots: The Appeal of Biochar

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who are tapped into the world of regenerative farming, or if you are a scholar in the study of ancient Amazonian agricultural farming tactics, biochar is probably a familiar term. If not, let me explain. Biochar is an ancient tool used to increase the fertility of the soil that has started to make a comeback in today’s regenerative farming world. At its essence, biochar is essentially a form of charcoal that is incorporated into compost or directly into the soil profile as a means of storing carbon and nutrients and increasing your soil’s moisture holding capacity.

One of the reasons biochar is making such a huge comeback in today’s regenerative farming world is that it is fairly easy to make. You start with a biomass, in our case, grapevine prunings and fallen logs and brush that we’ve collected while cleaning our forest understory to keep our fire risks down. Add some kind of receptacle, or even just a cone-shaped hole in the ground. You then light the fuel on fire burning the material from the top on down. The gases that are contained in that biomass beneath the fire combust and burn off, but leave almost all the carbon behind. If done properly, there is very little Carbon Dioxide released into the atmosphere (imagine a smokeless fire if you will). Once the fire has burned through your pile of biomass, you are left with a form of nearly pure carbon or biochar. This would be the simplest way of creating biochar for small producers. There are many other forms of production as well. There are larger kiln style burners all the way to industrial style setups that companies like Pacific Biochar are using. But in all cases, the idea is that you are turning raw fuel into a stable form of carbon as efficiently as possible.

Biochar - piles

Beyond its carbon capturing ability, biochar improves your soil in several ways. Because of its crystalline structure, one gram of biochar can contain – conservatively – over 2000 square feet of surface area. That surface area has the ability to hold on to both nutrients and water molecules and release them slowly, over time as needed. These properties are very similar to those of limestone. Both limestone and biochar are essentially banks and whenever our grapevines need a little cash, they are able to access the needed resources easily. A recent 3-year study conducted by Monterey Pacific Inc. showed that using biochar in conjunction with compost increased both grapevine yield and soil water holding capacity.

Last year, we ran a biochar trial very similar to Monterey Pacific’s here at Tablas Creek. We incorporated ten tons of biochar into some of the compost we made here on the property. We then took that biochar/compost mix and spread it out on the ground of our pig pen. Next, we moved our sheep into that pen and fed them feed harvested from the property on top of the mix for 3 days:

Biochar - Grazing sheep

We gathered that compost/biochar/manure mix and spread in our trial block. In the trial block we left 2 rows untreated, treated 2 rows with just compost, 2 rows with compost/biochar mix, and 2 rows with the compost/biochar/manure mix, repeated 3 times (18 rows total). We then seeded all rows with cover crop. It did not take a trained eye to see the difference between the rows that were treated and those that were not. The cover crops were happy in all the rows, but those that had the bio-char and compost mix (like the row on the left in the photo below) had a cover crop that was considerably taller than the rest of the block.

Biochar - Growth from application
Beyond the fact that biochar has the ability to increase yields of grapevines and soil moisture holding capacity, onsite production of biochar provides an alternative to the burn piles that pollute the air in many farm areas while also releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Every farming property has to deal with biomass collected from the previous growing season. But choosing to produce biochar with that biomass is a win-win, creating a product that helps our vineyard while significantly reducing air pollution and CO2 release.

Up to this point, we’ve been purchasing biochar for our experiments. In the next couple of months, we’ll be designing a small kiln to trial here on the property. We want to get a feel for the cost, safety, and efficiency of the process. But we feel great about the prospects for this experiment. Whatever canes are left after chipping what we need for our compost program, we will turn into biochar. Whatever wood we collect while clearing the understory of the property to reduce fire hazard and improve access for our flock, we will turn into biochar. The biochar we create will be incorporated into our compost, aerating the pile and helping the composting process, which proceeds better in the presence of oxygen.

So, what do we think the impacts of biochar will be? Better soil fertility and water-holding capacity. A healthier compost pile. Reduced fire hazard and more grazeable land for our herd. Good conditions for the re-growth of native vegetation. More carbon in the soil and less (perhaps dramatically less) CO2 produced. Win-win-win-win-win.

Farm Like the World Depends On It

Biochar - overview


Tracking the Changing of the Seasons: November Brings Transformation

There are long stretches of the year when the look of the vineyard doesn't change much. Can you tell August from May? Not easily. Some of the grapes will have changed colors. The leaves of the vines might not be quite as vibrant a green. How about March from January? Maybe in the length of the cover crop, unless our sheep have been through. Maybe in the quality of the sun. But it's subtle. Not November. That's a month of rapid, visible transformation, as we get our first frosts, the vine leaves go from green to brown to missing, and (hopefully) we see the first shoots of green, with the arrival of our winter rains.

I took a long walk around the vineyard yesterday to gather material for my Wednesday Instagram Live broadcast, and was struck by how different things looked after three nights of lows in the 20s than they did just a week ago. Check out this side-by-side, from between the same rows of Syrah. The photo on the left was from a week ago, and the photo on the right from yesterday:

Syrah rows before frost cropped Syrah rows after frost cropped

Before you start worrying, this is totally normal, and healthy. Frost is a signal to the grapevines that they don't need to expend any further energy maintaining leaves and ripening fruit, and instead should store carbohydrates in their root systems for the next year. Years where we don't get a hard freeze before it starts raining can be a problem, as vines expend energy that they should be conserving for the next spring in new growth that will just get frozen later.

Although we got a little rain last weekend, the two-tenths of an inch didn't have any impact that I could see other than having cleaned off our solar panels. But with more rain forecast for next week, it was a good reminder that we needed to get the vineyard put to bed. One of the pieces of this effort involves laying out straw on the hillside roads (which are less porous than the vineyard, and therefore erosion risks) so they don't become seasonal creekbeds:

Straw on vineyard road

We're also getting ready for the winter's planting. It's going to be a big year for us, with some 15 acres scheduled to go into the ground. One of the blocks we're most excited to get replanted is the block below, which was the site of our original Mourvedre vines, planted from American-sourced cuttings in 1992. It's a terrific site, just below the top of our tallest hill, but the clones themselves were weak, and even grafting French cuttings onto them some 15 years ago didn't produce wine of the quality of our other top blocks. So, two years ago we pulled it out, and have left it fallow until it will get new, high quality Mourvedre plants this winter. It's not even quite two acres, but we have high hopes for it:

Cleared ex-Mourvedre AV

Maybe the most exciting development each November is the beginning of lambing season. We try to time it so that they're born just before the cover crop sprouts, so that when they're growing the food is at its most plentiful. We're still supplementing with the fodder we harvested and baled last winter, but hopefully not for much longer. I hope you're ready for lots of baby lamb pictures over the next few months.

First lamb of 2020

I'll leave you with my favorite photo that I took yesterday, looking down through our oldest Grenache block, over Counoise (to the right of the row of olive trees) and Tannat (on the valley floor), and to Roussanne and eventually Muscardin on the far hillside. The color palette is unique to November, with golds and browns and oranges, not much green to be found, the overcast sky we only see in winter, but subtle and beautiful in its own right. Bring on winter.

Long Autumn View from Top of Vineyard


Harvest 2020 Recap: Fast and Furious, a Reflection of Our Warmest Harvest Season Ever

On Friday, with the bin of Tannat pictured below, we completed the 2020 harvest. This capped a 45-day sprint: among our shorter harvests and earliest finishes in our history. What produced this sustained sprint? Our warmest-ever harvest season, with really no breaks in the heat, except for a couple of days where the atmospheric smoke was so thick that the sun never came out and the days topped out in the low 70s. That wasn't pleasant. But for all the unusual conditions and unrelenting pace, we're still happy with the quality of what's in the cellar. And that, in 2020, is reason to celebrate:

Last bin of 2020 harvest

Many years, you expect to see a bell curve-shaped harvest graph. Not 2020. After a fairly gentle first two weeks, we brought in between 60 and 75 tons off the estate each week for five weeks, and then were done. The chart below shows the box-shaped curve (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Harvest Tons By Week 2020

Yields were solid, up about 7% from 2019, but still in that 3-3.5 tons per acre that we see in many of our favorite vintages. This is somewhat of a surprise. We were expecting yields at or below last year even before the record heat waves impacted yields on sensitive grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne. And those two grapes did suffer a bit. But other grapes, particularly the Grenaches, made up the difference. The complete picture:

Grape 2020 Yields (tons) 2019 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2019
Viognier 18.8 17.4 +8.0%
Marsanne 13.0 12.3 +5.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.7 28.3 +65.0%
Picpoul Blanc 8.7 8.6 +1.2%
Vermentino 21.1 24.7 -14.6%
Roussanne 34.8 46.1 -24.5%
Other whites 7.9 7.8 +1.3%
Total Whites 151.0 145.2 +4.0%
Grenache 74.9 51.4 +45.7%
Syrah 43.8 42.5 +3.1%
Mourvedre 46.9 49.6 -5.4%
Tannat 17.6 19.0 -7.4%
Counoise 15.9 20.0 -20.5%
Other reds 7.2 5.6 +28.6%
Total Reds 206.3 188.1 +9.7%
Total 357.3 333.3  +7.2%

Average yields ended up at 3.35 tons per acre, just slightly above our ten-year average, and almost exactly our average if you exclude the frost years of 2009 and 2011. Other years between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre include 2008, 2018, and 2019, all among our favorite years. It's perhaps unsurprising that our later-ripening grapes (like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Tannat, and Counoise) were the ones that were down (by just under 15%, on average) since the vines were starting to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. Why we weren't down overall can be credited to Grenache, and that was up not because of the conditions in 2020, but because in 2019 both Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc suffered reduced yields due to shatter (incomplete fertilization of berries caused by cool weather or wind during flowering).

I am concerned that this is two years in a row of very low Mourvedre production. Both years came in under two tons per acre. Some of that is variety-specific (we know it's not a high-yielding grape like Grenache or even Syrah) but it came in at 2.6 tons/acre as recently as 2017, and in the mid-2000's averaged around 3.0 tons/acre. We know we have some missing vines in some of our older Mourvedre blocks, and we'll be replanting a Mourvedre block we pulled out a couple of years ago. Hopefully, between some additional focus on vine health and these new blocks, we'll be able to get our Mourvedre production back up. For this year, I'm expecting it to constrain the amount of Esprit de Tablas and varietal Mourvedre we can make.

We had 118 harvest lots, an increase of 23 over 2019. Most of that is multiple picks that we made with our late-ripening blocks (identified with Roman numerals in the chalkboard below) but it's also exciting to see our first-ever harvest of Muscardin:

2020 Harvest Chalkboard Final

That Muscardin, 130 pounds in total, is currently sitting in our smallest stainless steel microfermenter. We're hoping for maybe 10 gallons of wine, enough to taste and evaluate. Stay tuned!

Muscardin Microfermenter

Muscardin Microfermenter Closeup

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
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

You'll note that 2020's numbers are very similar to last year's, and in fact our average harvest pH has been steady for three years. Given how much we love the 2019's, that's a good thing. It also suggests that, as much as we know that the late-ripening grapes did suffer in the heat, our multiple picks allowed us to get the riper clusters off the healthier vines early enough to maintain solid acids.

In terms of weather, I feel like I invited disaster when in late July I commented that 2020's conditions had been, so far, benign. And almost from that moment, it got hot. Some of those days had noteworthy, record-breaking heat. But even the days that weren't noteworthy were mostly warmer than normal. Between August 10th and October 9th (our last day of harvest), we saw just 15 days cooler than seasonal averages, vs. 46 days above, often significantly so. You can see the two stretches that broke records in mid-August and early September, but it's worth also noting the third spike in late September and early October, with daytime highs some 15+ degrees above normal. 

Daily High Temps 2020 Harvest

Looking at that information another way, our August degree day totals were 25% above the average of what is already our a very hot month. September was 21% above average. And the first 9 days of October (we finished picking October 9th) were 55% above our 20-year averages. No wonder harvest was short! The chart below shows our degree days by month, including the warmer-than-normal May and June, the cooler-than-normal July, and then the scorching August-October periods. Note that October's information is for the first 9 days, as we picked our last block on October 9th:

Degree Days vs Average 2020 Growing Season

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 45 days -- was on the short side for us. But it's in keeping with what we've observed with all our vintage markers since August, that the durations were compressed by the heat. That includes the duration between veraison and harvest, and between first harvest and last harvest. But individual grapes often stretched across the harvest, as we went through in multiple passes to get what was ripe off the vines while it still had good acidity, knowing we would come back a second or third time if necessary. So, the sequencing we often talk about, with harvest beginning with grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, moving to mid-ripening grapes like Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache, and finishing with late grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Picpoul, and Mourvedre is more complex in 2020. Here's the spread in harvest dates for our principal grapes. We picked four different grapes on our last harvest day (October 9th). The first pick of those grapes were September 4th, September 15th, September 23rd, and September 29th!

  • Viognier: August 25-September 12
  • Counoise: September 4-October 9
  • Vermentino: September 9-11
  • Syrah: September 9-October 8
  • Marsanne: September 10-11
  • Grenache Blanc: September 14-28
  • Grenache Noir: September 15-October 9
  • Roussanne: September 16-October 8
  • Mourvedre: September 23-October 9
  • Tannat: September 29-October 9
  • Picpoul: October 2-7

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 unusually enthusiastic, commenting that all the lots showed lots of character, better acids than he'd been expecting, and savory, spicy personalities. We've been tasting lots to try to find any that might have even a hint of smoke taint from the California wildfires earlier in the season, but haven't found even one. That's a relief. As for the vintage's personality, we'll know more 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, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And everything smells amazing, the rich aroma of young red wines spreading throughout the cellar with every press load: 

2020 Press Load in the Sun

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time. There was a chance of some rain this past weekend, though as often happens with early-season systems, it petered out without providing any precipitation here. And, there's nothing wet in the long-term forecast. But that gives us time to put the vineyard to bed, get the animals out into the vineyard to eat any second crop clusters before they rot, spread their manure and jump start the winter soil microbial activity. It also means that we don't have to worry about grapes on the vine being impacted by any other extreme weather that we might see. It is 2020, after all.

And yet, despite all the challenges, in this craziest year that any of us have experienced, we're feeling cautiously optimistic that the 2020 wines might provide something we want to remember.


What the cellar and vineyard look and feel like at harvest's peak

As I write this, we've passed the 90% mark of the 2020 harvest. But that doesn't mean we're on the gentle tail end of things, just waiting for the last few lots to finish as we cruise into autumn. No, this harvest is more like a sprint to the tape at the end of a race. Today, we have harvested two different blocks of Mourvedre, three different blocks of Counoise, plus Roussanne and Picpoul. We are pressing off red lots, washing barrels to put those newly-pressed wines into, and washing out the tanks they came from so they're ready for more. It's a beehive of activity. I thought it would be fun to give a visual tour of what this, one of the busiest days of the year, feels like. First, the crushpad, littered with bins and barrels:

Crushpad with bins and barrels

Our main cellar room, looking toward the crushpad, shows closed tanks around the outside and open-top fermenters down the middle. They're all full, except a few of our largest blending tanks and the one open-top that is clean and ready for some of the Mourvedre that arrived today. Each tank has to be punched down or pumped over at least twice a day:

Main cellar room

The room where we have our white fermentations going looks deceptively quiet, but each of the barrels gets measured each day so we know its progress through fermentation. You can see some of that work going on in the back of the room, between the foudre stacks:

White cellar room

We've moved as many barrels as we can out of our red barrel room to make room for macro-bins, each with a small-lot fermentation going:

Barrel cellar room

The room that's full of upright tanks (below left) is quiet now, but five of the six big tanks are full of fermenting red lots. The sixth? It was drained and washed this morning, and will be filled this afternoon. For now it's empty, so you can see (below right) the warm color stained inside by generations of red fermentations, as well as the stainless steel tubing that allows us to control the temperature (and therefore the speed) of the fermentations inside:

Upright cellar room Inside an upright tank

The only room that's not seeing any activity is our foudre room, where the 2019 red blends are sitting quietly, aging and mellowing, in preparation for next summer's bottling:

Foudre room

On the crushpad, we have twin presses going. In the left we have newly-harvested Roussanne. In the right is Mourvedre that has been fermenting and macerating on the skins for about two weeks:

Roussanne in the press

Mourverdre in the press

Where does the newly-pressed wine go? Into barrels. Most of these barrels have been sitting empty the last few months, so we need to make sure they're clean and that the staves haven't dried out. Steam is a very water-efficient way of doing both:

Washing barrels

In the vineyard, it's getting hard to find blocks with grapes still on the vines. After today, those blocks will be limited to Mourvedre and Counoise, and even most of those blocks have been picked once already. A couple of blocks with fruit still on them include the Mourvedre just south of the winery (left) and a low-lying head-trained Counoise block toward the western edge of our original parcel (right). Everything is ready; it's just a question of sequencing to make sure we have space for what arrives.

Mourvedre clusters Counoise head trained

Finally, one piece that it feels appropriate to end on. I talk a lot about the importance of continuity in our vineyard crew, who we've given year-round employment to since the mid-1990's. We rely on that crew to do most of our sorting out in the field, so underripe or damaged grapes don't even make it to the sorting table. I loved this photo of our lowest-lying Grenache block, which was picked Monday, with rejected clusters left on the ground to decompose and return their nutrients to the soil:

Grenache cluster on the ground

With the fruit nearly all in, the chance of rain that's in the forecast for this weekend would have only positive consequences. We'll keep our fingers crossed for that, and enjoy the last few days with grapes on the vine and the cellar a beehive of activity.

Crushpad October 2020


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarèse

There's not much that's more fun for us here at Tablas Creek than getting to explore new, rare, and little-known grapes. So last year, when we harvested three grapes for the first time ever, was a bonanza for us. Two of these grapes (Bourboulenc and Cinsaut) are fairly well known in France, with Cinsaut even achieving enough success to have been brought to regions as diverse as Spain, South Africa, Australia and California. But much less is known about the last of the three new grapes, Vaccarèse. One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres1, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of the appellation's acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 28 acres recorded in France as of 2016 and none, until we brought in ours, elsewhere in the world2. We've now picked two vintages of this grape, and while we don't know a ton yet, we're excited enough that I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into what we have learned.

VACCARESE LithographEarly History
The grape Vaccarèse appears to have been named after the village of Vaccarès, in the Camargue region just south-west of Avignon. As Vaccarèse, it has a long history in the Rhone, with its first historical mention coming in 1538 as a grape planted in a village outside Avignon (coincidentally, in a document with one of the earliest-ever mentions of Bourboulenc too)3. As you would expect of a grape at least five centuries old, it's known by a few other names, with Camarèse (apparently named after another southern French village, Camarès) and Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered" for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves) being the two most common. Despite this long history, it does not appear to have ever been planted far from the Rhone Valley, or been a dominant grape even in its homeland.

Vaccarèse is pronounced vɒk-ɜ-rɛz. (vock-uh-rez). Even though it looks like an Italian word, the final "e" is silent. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Vaccarèse at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we'd been sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. (Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2018 and grafted into the vineyard last year.)

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Vaccarèse, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Vaccarèse in the Vineyard and Cellar
There's not a ton of literature on Vaccarèse because of its scarcity, but in look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters, except that the colors of the berries are darker, more blue-black than the translucent purple of the others. It is reputed to be highly susceptible to bunch rot, which is not a problem in Paso Robles but may explain its scarcity in the Rhone.

In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. The sugars were very near the median for our red grapes in 2019, while the pH was one of the lower (higher acid) readings we saw.

Vaccarese Cluster Square

In the cellar we were limited in our choices because we harvested so little, but we fermented it in a small stainless steel variable-capacity tank and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

Although in the long run we're expecting Vaccarèse to become a part of our blends most years, we try to bottle new grapes on their own, so we can wrap our own heads around them and share them with our colleagues and fans. So it was exciting that in our blending trials this spring we were excited enough about the Vaccarèse that we think it will stand on its own proudly. We produced seven barrels, enough to bottle about 175 cases. The initial vintage will go into bottle late spring of 2021 and be released to wine club members later that year.

Flavors and Aromas
In his seminal Ampelographie, Pierre Galet praises Vaccarèse for "an indisputable aromatic floral originality, a very fresh and very elegant flavor, particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic character of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape."4

My experience with Vaccarèse is limited to a single vintage, but that initial vintage reminded me more of a Loire-style Cabernet Franc than it did anything from the Rhone. It was a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth showed notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. It seems like its dark color, solid acidity and its spice and herbal notes will be useful counterpoints to fruitier, paler, lower-tannin Rhone grapes like Grenache, Counoise, or Cinsaut, but we will see. As for the wine's ageworthiness? We have no idea. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  2. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020
  3. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  4. Pierre Galet, Cepages et Vignobles de France, Imprimerie Charles Dehan, 1990