Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

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

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

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

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

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

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

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

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

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

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

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

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

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

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

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

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

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


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrah block with layering

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

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

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

Syrah block - latering sprouting


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

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

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

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

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

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

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

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

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

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

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

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

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

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

IMG_7185 2

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:

IMG_7184

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. 

IMG_7213

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:

IMG_6818
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