The Vineyard at the Summer Solstice: Bursting with Vigor and at Peak Green

One of the benefits of the last two pandemic years is that I'm spending more time in the vineyard than I was before. Some of that is because I'm rarely out of town, but it's equally because our Covid experience has really driven home to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. That has led to some of my favorite content, like the #grapespotlight deep-dives we did on Instagram and on Facebook last year, and the related #grapeminute YouTube video series we're working on now. But this blog remains the best avenue I have to share the seasonal changes whose rhythms determine the landscape that surrounds us and the vintage character that we'll come to know in coming months and years.

Late May and early June doesn't see big changes in look or feel, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were in the middle of flowering. Now the berries on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are pea-sized and growing fast:

Solstice 2022 - Grenache berries

A photo of Syrah gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. The principal work now in the vineyard is shoot-thinning, opening up the canopy to light and air and keeping mildew pressures (which usually peak around this time of year) under control:

Solstice 2022 - Syrah Block

If you're expecting bare dirt between the vineyard rows, the view above might look messy. But reducing tillage is one tenet of regenerative farming, and we've been increasingly replacing disking or spading the surface with mowing and mulching the cover crop. This should have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions and the potential for erosion. The Vermentino block below is another good example (as well as a great illustration of the vineyard's vigor):

Solstice 2022 - Vermentino block

I took a swing through the sections most damaged by our May frost, and was encouraged to see that the vines had re-sprouted leaves. We won't get crop off of these blocks, but the canopy growth should be enough to allow them to store up energy and come back strong next year:

Solstice 2022 - Frost Recovery

Also encouraging was the condition of the new blocks that we planted last year. I was worried that the young vines in these low-lying blocks were killed by the frost, but most of them, including the Counoise vines below, did manage to re-sprout. We'll still see some vine mortality, but less than I originally thought:

Solstice 2022 - New Counoise block

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. For example, even Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), neither of which will likely come in until mid-October, are both showing nice clusters of little berries:

Solstice 2022 - Roussanne berriesSolstice 2022 - Mourvedre berries

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall. For whatever reason, this year's cherry season has been disappointing, and the stone fruit (peaches, apricots, and nectarines) aren't carrying much fruit. But the apples and quinces are loaded: 

Solstice 2022 - Quince

The fruit trees aren't the only things we've planted in our quest for biodiversity. Last year we planted several insectaries, with flowering plants that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Those were just getting started a year ago, but are thriving now:

Solstice 2022 - Insectaries

I'll leave you with a photo I particularly love, of a dry-farmed Grenache block with vines whose health is unmistakable. That exuberance is everywhere in the vineyard right now. The noteworthy vine health, good fruit set, and larger clusters combine to suggest that even with the losses from the frost, we're likely to see a more plentiful harvest than we saw in 2021. And that's fueling some pretty noteworthy exuberance on our part, too.

Solstice 2022 - Grenache vine


Flowering and Fruit Set Provide Reasons for Optimism After a Challenging Beginning to 2022

At the beginning of the growing season, no news is usually good news. If you avoid frost, and avoid cold or wet or windy weather during flowering, you can expect to see fruit set (when the berries start to form) roughly two months after budbreak. And in the sections of the vineyard where we avoided frost, that's what we're seeing. This Syrah vine is a good example:

Fruit Set 2022 - Syrah

2022, however, has not been a news-free spring. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our frosts. And though most of the vineyard avoided dropping below freezing, it got cold everywhere, which has lesser but still important impacts on the vines' ability to fertilize the flowers and turn them into grapes.

Flowering and fruit set mark the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so highlights the extent to which 2022 has so far been an outlier, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights where temperatures bottomed out at or below 32 at our weather station. The first 53 days of the growing season (April 1st - May 23st), through the third weekend of May which we usually take as the unofficial end of frost season, provide a good marker. Here's how 2022 compares to past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights ≤ 32°F
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
2021 499 2 13 2
Average 2012-2021 491.6 3.1 17.9 0.9
2022 554 6 13 3

You can see that 2022 has been a bit warmer than average overall, but the devil is in the details (and the frost nights). We had two of our 90+ days in early April, which meant that things were far enough out that the April 12th and 13th frost nights had more impact than they might have in a cooler year. And the other frost night on May 10th was so late that everything was out far enough to take some significant damage, and the four chilly, windy days that preceded it, none of which got into the 70s, were in a position to impact flowering in our early varieties. 

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. So it wasn't a shock that when I explored our Grenache blocks I found evidence of shatter:

Fruit Set 2022 - Grenache

Is this a catastrophe? No. A little shatter in Grenache can actually be a good thing, because it opens up the clusters and means we don't have to do as much fruit thinning on this famously productive grape. And that seems to be the degree we're seeing, with impacts in the 20%-50% range. It's additional good news is that I couldn't find any evidence of shatter in anything else.

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

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

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given that we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom for another couple of weeks. Our late-sprouting varieties like Roussanne are still in peak flowering:

Flowering 2022 - Roussanne

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, weeks after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. We might not know where everything is going. But for our early grapes, like the Viognier below, things are well on their way.

Fruit Set 2022 - Viognier


The Scruffy Hill Block: A Dry-Farming Success Story

Scruffy Hill Long View DownLooking down through the Scruffy Hill Block

We talk a lot about our Scruffy Hill block, planted head-trained and dry-farmed to a mix of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne in 2005 and 2006. It's the source of much of the fruit that we use for the En Gobelet and (increasingly) in Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, and perhaps even more importantly the test case for the 60+ dry-farmed acres on the block we call Jewel Ridge. For all that, I realized I haven't really ever dived into the place here on the blog. So let's remedy that.

The Name
Our original property of 120 acres included about 100 plantable acres on the northwest side of Las Tablas Creek, about 12 plantable acres on the southeast side of Las Tablas Creek, and about 8 acres of creekbed. The existing well here and the new well we drilled in 1990 were both in the larger parcel on the north side, where we ended up putting our winery building, tasting room, and nursery. If you've visited the property, this is probably what you think of as Tablas Creek Vineyard. We started planting this piece in 1992 and were fully planted by 2004. Those plantings were mostly trellised and irrigated (at least to get the vines established) although beginning in 2000 we started planting some of the valley-bottom, deeper soil block head-trained and dry-farmed. 

The 12 acres on the other side of Las Tablas Creek provided a different challenge. We didn't have a well over there, so we weren't able to plant irrigated vineyard. And the steep hillsides and shallower soils meant that we weren't sure how dry-farmed vines would do. So while the rest of the vineyard was neatly planted and maintained, this block was allowed to grow wild each year, then that cover crop was disked into the soil once each spring. As this was before we had a flock of sheep, it got pretty overgrown each year, and we called it "Scruffy Hill". In the map below you can see it at the lower right, to the right of the arrow pointing north.  Tablas_Creek_Vineyard_Map_2014

The Choice to Dry-Farm
We are believers in the power of dry-farming (maybe better understood as unirrigated farming) to produce grapes with maximum character of place. That should be intuitive; topsoil is pretty similar no matter where you are, while the deeper soils have more distinctive fingerprints. Traditional irrigated farming rewards the roots that sit nearest the drip emitters, so the vines tend to grow much of their root mass in the topsoil. Dry-farmed grapevines have much deeper root systems as the plants are forced to explore for water. 

As we approached the challenge of planting Scruffy Hill, we looked to models old and new. [I wrote about this in a blog series on dry-farming from 2015.] After our research, we felt confident that if we planted at low density, reducing the competition from neighboring vines and allowing each vine access to a generous portion of soil from which it could pull scarce water, we'd have a chance of the vineyard thriving. You don't have to look far to see 100-year-old vineyards planted this way here in Paso Robles; the Zinfandel and other heritage vines that first established the region in the wine world were planted before irrigation technology existed. And Scruffy Hill, planted in a 12 x 12 diamond pattern at just 350 vines per acre, has thrived. Walking through the vineyard block you can feel them radiating health, bright green, bushy, and robust, like this Grenache vine:

Scruffy Hill Grenache closeup

Although the low vine density means that our overall yields off Scruffy Hill are around two tons per acre, we've found that the block suffers less than our closer-spaced blocks do when we have a drought year or a heat spike. Part of that can be explained by the deep root system. But part of it is simple math. Our trellised, irrigated blocks have between 1600 and 1800 vines per acre. So while a drought year might bring half of our normal 26" of rainfall, our wide-spaced, dry-farmed vines still get (per-vine) roughly double the rainfall per vine than the closer-spaced blocks do in an average rainfall year. Yes, we can supplement via the irrigation drip lines if we want, but we just can't put enough water on the vineyard to make up the difference of more than a foot of rain.

To help the vines make it through their first two years, we used a very old-fashioned irrigation technique: 5-gallon buckets, with a hole drilled in the bottom so that the water came out slowly enough that it would be absorbed instead of running off the surface. They got one bucket each year, around mid-summer. Other than that, and since then, they've been on their own.  

The Soils
All of our vineyard is rugged, with large concentrations of calcareous deposits. Those high-calcium soils are a big piece of why we chose this spot in the first place. But there are still differences, with lower, flatter areas tending to have more topsoil over those limestone layers. Scruffy Hill, though, is all pretty steep, and the calcareous soils are evident:

Scruffy Hill Grenache and Soil

Here's a closeup. An easy life for the vines, this is not:

Scruffy Hill Soil

The Significance
The vines on Scruffy Hill, as they've matured, have come to be more and more important in our top red blends. It has since 2010 been the overwhelming source of our En Gobelet, which we make entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed estate vineyard blocks, and dedicate to our wine club members each year. In more recent years, lots from Scruffy Hill have found their way into Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie as well. But the block's most important contribution to the work we do has been as a test case. When we bought the next parcel to the south of us in 2011, the success we had with Scruffy Hill gave us the confidence to plant it entirely head-trained, dry-farmed, wide-spaced pattern. That piece (which we now call Jewel Ridge) points our way toward success even in a future where ground water supplies are unreliable or unavailable. We also planted a big section of our westernmost block to head-trained, wide-spaced Grenache and Mourvedre, and are looking for relevant opportunities to do the same as we start the process of replanting weaker blocks in our original vineyard. For now we're at about half our acreage planted in this pattern, and that proportion is likely to grow. All this became viable because of the success we saw with Scruffy Hill.

Scruffy Hill Right Now
For all that, I don't want to downplay how great (and beautiful) a vineyard block it is in its own right. So let's take a little tour. At this time of year, the vineyard is changing fast. A month ago it had barely sprouted. Now the canes are a couple of feet long and still growing fast. The canopy of leaves is dense. This helps shade the clusters of fruit from the intense sun. Later in the growing season, the weight of the clusters will pulls down on the canes, opening the canopy to the circulation of light and air and reducing the pressure of fungal diseases like powdery mildew. But for now you can see how vertical the shoots are, by and large:

Scruffy Hill Long View

Zooming in toward the vines shows that the early grapes, like the Grenache vine below, are in the middle of flowering, although later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise aren't quite there yet:

Scruffy Hill Flowering Grenache

I'll leave you with one more photo, looking up at essentially the same view that the first photo gave you looking down. Both the Mourvedre vines in the foreground and the Grenache vines toward the top of the hill are looking great, under a classic Paso Robles early summer blue sky. We might not know where these grapes will be going, but I'm already sure it will be someplace great. Scruffy Hill cleans up pretty well, it turns out:

Scruffy Hill Overview Square


Frost damage and recovery... and damage and recovery

Paso Robles has many natural climatic advantages. We don't have to worry about hailstorms in the summer, or rain during harvest. Our humidity is low so mildew isn't usually a big challenge. The chilly summer nights mean that our grapes maintain good acids and get extended hang-times even despite our 320 days of sun each year and our typically hot summer days. But the one natural risk that we deal with each year is spring frosts. And after a decade of avoiding them, 2022 marks their unwelcome return.

During dormancy, frosts are not harmful and in fact usually beneficial. But after budbreak, which began this year in mid-March, any new growth is susceptible to frost damage. Our tools to deal with frosts are limited. We have micro-sprinklers that do a great job, but only enough water to protect our most frost-prone ten acres. We use big fans, which work by mixing the cold air at the surface with the warmer air aloft, to protect our next-most-vulnerable 30 acres. These fans work if there is a defined inversion layer, where above-freezing air is within 10 feet or so of the surface. That happens with a surprisingly large percentage of our spring frosts here, but it's not as reliable as water. As for our other 80 acres of grapevines, on hilltops and steep slopes, they have to fend for themselves. Usually they're OK. 

This year, we first saw some post-budbreak frost nights in mid-April, when several nights saw lows just below freezing and on April 13th temperatures dropped briefly into the upper-20s. Those frosts singed the new growth in several blocks, including some higher blocks that are rarely affected, but they didn't wipe anything out, and it appeared that the frost fans really helped. I would estimate that those frost events cumulatively impacted less than 5% of the property's producing vines, and I was feeling fortunate, on the whole.

Fast-forward to last week. Sometime between 5am and 6am last Wednesday, May 11th, the weather station in the center of Tablas Creek Vineyard registered 30.6°F. That's cold, particularly for this late in the year. And it did some damage in that area, singeing the growth of some of the Tannat, Cinsaut, Counoise, and Syrah. Fortunately, it was below freezing for less than an hour, and it looks like the fan we have set up there kept things from getting too bad. The Cinsaut vine below is on the more-damaged side, and even it isn't a complete loss:

May 2022 Frost - Cinsaut

You can see from the above photo that frost manifests itself, at least after a couple of days, in crispy, brown leaves that look burned. Often it's just part of a vine that gets frozen, with areas of damage as you see at the top and other leaves, shoots, and clusters that are fine. It can feel arbitrary or even capricious, and it's not hard if you walk around the vineyard to find vines with one frozen shoot among a dozen green ones, or one surviving shoot among a dozen frozen ones, as in this Syrah vine:

May 2022 Frost - Syrah

In this central section of the vineyard, which is about 10 acres, I'd estimate damage for our mature sections in the 15% range. That's painful but not crippling. I'm more worried about the two new vineyard blocks in that area, whose young vines got frozen and who don't have the same reserves that older vines do to regrow. I think it's likely that we'll see some vine mortality, but it's too early to know how much.

Unfortunately, a different section of the vineyard got hit much harder. That block, which we call Nipple Flat and whose 11 acres includes blocks of Roussanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino, is at the southern end of the property, closest to Las Tablas Creek. Because it's the property's lowest point, and cold air flows downhill, last Wednesday night was colder, and it stayed cold longer, dropping below 32°F at 3am and bottoming out at 28.1°F at 6:15am. We have a fan there too, but evidently the cold air pooled deep enough that it was blowing below-freezing air around. You can see from the below photo that the swale in the background is all brown, in contrast to the not-quite-as-low section in the foreground that is still green. That lower area (which accounts in my estimate for about 60% of this block) will likely not produce any fruit this year:

May 2022 Frost - Nipple Flat

This isn't the first time we've seen damaging spring frosts. We lost half our crop due to April frosts in 2001, 2009, and 2011 (I even wrote about our 2011 frost on the blog). Those were a little different, earlier in the year (so the vines were less far out) but more widespread, where our frost fans didn't do any good since even at the tops of the hills the temperatures were below freezing. That meant that everything had to re-sprout, and the damage to our production was roughly relative to how far out they were, with the earliest grapes taking the biggest hit.

Because of our experience in those past years, we know pretty well what happens after April frosts. The frozen shoots die back, but the grapevines have enough vigor to sprout secondary buds, and those buds typically carry half the fruit load of the primary buds. You can see a good example from our April frost, in our Grenache. The frost-damaged shoot was still there this week, almost hidden in the canopy of new growth:

April 2022 Frost - Grenache

What happens next with the extensively damaged sections of the vineyard is uncharted waters for us, because of how late this frost event was and how far out the vines were. We assume that they will re-sprout and produce new canes and leaves. Evolutionarily, the vines need to photosynthesize carbohydrates and store up that energy to survive the winter and have a go at making fruit in 2023. Will they set clusters? Maybe a few, but I'm not expecting much, because they've spent a lot of their winter reserves in growth that is now damaged. Any crop they do set is going to be a month at least behind, and we'll have to worry about whether it will be able to ripen before (hopefully) rain and (eventually) frost this November.

In terms of impacts to our 2022 harvest, our biggest worry is Roussanne, where the eight acres on Nipple Flat account for roughly three-quarters of our producing acreage. That will have real impacts on how much Esprit de Tablas Blanc we can make and what its blend will be, and likely will preclude a varietal Roussanne. Our bigger picture, though, is not as dire. The badly-affected blocks represent something like 10% of our producing acreage. When you add in the more minor damage in other blocks between our April and May frost events, we're probably looking at something between a 15% and 20% reduction on the crops that we would have had if we'd avoided frosts. That's not nothing: probably 3,000 or 4,000 lost cases of wine that we'd otherwise be making in 2022.

But it could have been worse. 


Spring in the Vineyard: A Wildflower Explosion and a Burst of Growth

It's been a month or so since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard, and this is a time of year when things change fast. So, let's dive in.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles. The hillsides are green. The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day. Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've been OK. This weekend might be a different story, but we've done what we can to be prepared. Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card.  The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:

Wildflowers 2022 - Poppies

Low to the ground, the cover crop's most colorful component is purple vetch. These provide a carpet underneath taller elements, but in shady areas are impressive all on their own:

Wildflowers 2022 - Vetch

In areas where the sheep haven't grazed, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mustard

But the most impressive wildflower arrays are the lupines. These purple clusters can cover the ground, swaying rhythmically and producing an intoxicating scent. They're unmissable on the sides of the roads out in the Adelaida District this year:

Wildflowers 2022 - Lupine

I've been showing you lots of non-vineyard areas because that's what's most colorful, but the vineyards boast an impressive carpet of greenery, studded with purple, white, and yellow flowers from the vetch, radishes, mustard and sweet peas mixed in with the grasses and clovers:

Wildflowers 2022 - Mixed Cover Crop

But, of course, it's the vines that we care most about this time of year. The splashes of vibrant yellow-green from the new growth of our early-sprouting varieties (like Viognier, below) provide a contrast in texture more than color against the gold-green grasses, particularly in the morning sun:

Wildflowers 2022 - Viognier

This explosion of spring color won't last long.  Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and the color palette will shift from winter green to summer gold. We've already started getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.

Wildflowers 2022 - Riot


Budbreak 2022: Early, Despite Our Chilly Winter (Blame the Lack of Rain)

This winter's precipitation has fizzled after a wonderfully wet December. Although we've still got a few chances for more rain (including later this week) there's nothing substantial on the horizon, and March is the last month when we'd expect significant rainfall. So, we're resigning ourselves to another drought year. As you'd probably expect, that is likely to have an impact on our yields. What you might not expect is that it also impacts when the growing season starts. But it does. Because rising soil temperatures are one of the main signals that grapevines use to come out of dormancy in the spring, and because dry soils warm up faster than wet soils, we've been on the lookout for our warmer spots -- and our earlier-sprouting varieties -- to start their growing season. So this is no big surprise:

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache

So far, we've only seen leaves on three varieties (Grenache, above, plus Grenache Blanc and Viognier) and even in those blocks, it's rare. Viognier, for example, has lots of swollen buds but only a few tiny leaves visible, even at the top of the block:

Budbreak 2022 - Viognier

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

Budbreak 2022 is happening a bit early, historically, a couple of weeks earlier than average. That said, we're still two weeks after our earliest-ever budbreak in 2016. Here's when we first recorded significant budbreak the last decade:

2021: Last week of March
2020: Last week of March
2019: Second half of March
2018: Second half of March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April

Note that it's pretty much impossible to assign a hard date for something like budbreak. After all, it's not a single vine we're talking about, it's a continuum across 125 acres of vineyard with eighteen different varieties. Well more than 90% of the vineyard is still dormant. This Grenache bud, from halfway up the block from which the first photo was taken, looks just like it would have in January:

Budbreak 2022 - Dormant Grenache

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

Now our biggest worry becomes frost. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. We've had 35 days this winter where the weather station in our vineyard measured below freezing temperatures, a more or less normal number for us. But once the vines sprout, the new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got nearly two months to go before we can relax. We'll be up a lot at night, turning on frost fans and microsprinklers to help protect the new growth as best we can. Because all our low-lying areas are still dormant, and we choose later-sprouting grapes to go in those lower, more frost-prone vineyard blocks, we're still likely OK if we get a moderate frost in the next week or two. But by the end of March we'll be beyond that.  

Meanwhile, we're trying to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, we've moved them to late-sprouting blocks like this Mourvedre section at the south end of the property. With the early start to this year's cover crop growth, this was their third pass here, which is great:

Budbreak 2022 - Sheep in Mourvedre

You might think that earlier budbreak increases the risks of frost damage. And yes, all other things being equal, having fewer nights where you have to worry about temperatures dropping below freezing is better than having more. But if you look at the two most recent frost years (2009 and 2011) both of those saw budbreak in April. That said, after six solid weeks of high pressure between mid-January and late February, the weather pattern we're in now is more mixed. There's no big rain on the horizon, but there are some smaller storms. It's generally in the aftermath of the passage of a cold front that we worry about a hard freeze. So rain now comes as a mixed blessing. Fingers crossed, please. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. With March 2020 marking the beginning of lockdowns for most of the country and March 2021 marking the start of a transitional year, as vaccines got into circulation and people started emerging cautiously into mixed company again, this March feels less fraught. We just hosted our first educational seminar here in more than two years. I poured at the Rhone Rangers tasting, my first big indoor event in exactly two years. We have a full slate of tastings and wine dinners planned this spring.

And now the vines are joining the party. Let's hope their (and our) journey out into the world is a smooth one.

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache Blanc


A Picture Worth 1,000 Words, Mid-Winter Edition

We're in week three of sunny January after our rainiest December in nearly two decades, and the vineyard looks amazing. This is peak green for Paso Robles, almost shocking if you're used to it in its summer colors. I've been taking advantage of the sun to get out and take lots of pictures of how things look, and while experimenting with using the panoramic mode on my iPhone vertically, ended up capturing a photo that I feel like tells big chunks of the story of Tablas Creek in one shot. I'll share the photo first, and then break down the story that I see when I look at this picture, starting at the bottom and working my way up to the horizon.  

Winter on Crosshairs
Miner's Lettuce at Ground Level
At the bottom of the photo you can see, nestled among the grasses, spade-shaped leaves of the water-loving California native plant Miner's Lettuce. It thrives in wet soils, and is one of our best indicators that the ground is saturated. It's also very tasty, like a milder, juicier spinach, and was a great source of vitamins for California pioneers (hence its name). I dove into its significance in a blog more than a decade ago, but the take-home is that it's one of my indicators that the soils are saturated.

Native Cover Crop
A little further up, you can see the thick green carpet of grasses and broadleaf plants that are growing around the vines. This isn't a section that we seeded, instead choosing to leave the topsoil undisturbed to allow the plants that summered over to grow naturally. This is not to say that we avoid planting cover crops. We believe in them, and always seed many of our blocks each year with a mix of peas, oats, vetch, clovers, and radishes. But more and more, in the blocks that we believe can support them, we're going to leave sections to seed themselves year after year. And the lush health of this cover crop is a great indication that the goal of building rich, nutrient-dense soils is succeeding.

Head-Trained, Wide-Spaced, Dry-Farmed Grenache Vines Grafted onto St. George Rootstocks
We planted this block in 2012, as a part of our exploration into how we could help the grapes we love thrive without irrigation in our often hot-dry climate. To do this, we looked toward the past, to one of the first rootstocks developed after the phylloxera epidemic, which was widely used in the many California vineyards planted before irrigation became widespread in the 1970s. This is the famously deep-rooting, high vigor St. George rootstock, 100% from vitis rupestris stock, which fell out of favor in irrigated vineyards because of its high vigor, deep root growth, and incompatibility with some wine grapes. But Grenache? Not a problem. It grafts well to any rootstock. The deep root structure? Perfect for our calcareous clay soils, where the top several feet might be dry by late summer. High vigor? Great! Dry-farming grapes in Paso Robles is a naturally high stress endeavor. Giving the vines what they need to survive and thrive is a big piece of our goal each year. And Grenache, the lead grape in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, is originally from the hot, dry Spanish plateau, well adapted both for the Rhone's Mediterranean climate and for ours. 

This block is a great example of how we look to the past for our farming models. After all, wine grapes were grown in California for centuries before drip irrigation, and you only have to drive around Paso Robles to see the health of these old vineyards today, nearly a century after they were planted. What do these old vineyards all have in common? Low density (wide spacing). Head-training. Dry-farming. We have high hopes that the vineyards we are planting in this model will be examples to future grapegrowers a century from now, while providing a hedge against near- and medium-term climate change. 

Hilltop Owl Box
At the top of the hill, you can see one of the 43 owl boxes we have scattered around the property. Back when there were just 38 of them, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg wrote about their value and even shared directions on how to build your own. These boxes, and the families of owls that they support, are a big piece of our ongoing fight against the gophers and ground squirrels that plague our region. When you commit to farming organically, you lose the ability to poison these rodent pests. You can trap gophers, and we do. But families of owls, each of which can eat 500 rodents in a nesting season, provide round-the-clock vigilance against a wider spectrum of rodents, helping maintain and restore the environment's balance. And that balance is the central tenet of Biodynamics, which seeks to turn your farm unit into a complete and naturally resilient ecosystem. Thirty years into our commitment to organics, a decade into our first forays into Biodynamics, and four years into our move toward Regenerative Organics, these owl boxes are maybe the most visible, understandable piece of that effort. 

So, what does this photo tell me? It tells a story of a healthy, balanced vineyard, planted in to a grape and in a way that aligns it with the growing conditions here. It tells the story of  vineyard practices that make best possible use of the resources that Nature provides us, those resources encouraged and supported by our farming. And it tells the story of a winter that, so far at least, is playing out exactly as we would have wished.


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:

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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:

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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:

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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.