April in Paso Robles is Peak Green

If you asked me to pick my favorite month in Paso Robles, it would be April. The days are longer, and the sun warmer. You get your first days in the 70s and by the end of the month probably touch 80 once or twice, but the nights are still chilly and you're coming out of the winter season which makes the warmth all the more welcome. The grapevines burst out of dormancy and come to life. And the combination of green hillsides, blue skies, and puffy white clouds is remarkable:

Green vineyard and blue skies April 2024

Of course, April isn't without risk. The new growth is vulnerable to frosts, and days that top out in the low 60s can freeze at night. We saw some light damage from a cold night last weekend, and were grateful that it didn't come three weeks later, when the whole vineyard would have sprouted. These last few weeks of dormancy provide a striking contrast between the dark brown vine trunks and the electric green of the cover crops, as in this view of our Scruffy Hill block:

Puffy clouds over green Scruffy Hill April 2024

The flowers you see in the above photo are the daikon radishes from our cover crop. After our flock of sheep passes through, the plants that were grazed are stimulated to reproduce, sending up a carpet of flowers and seeds. That's even more dramatically in evidence in the head-trained Tannat block below:   

Flowing cover crop in dry-farmed Tannat April 2024

It's not just the growth of the cover crops and grapevines that make it feel so alive in April. Standing in the middle of the vineyard the buzz of bees and the chirping of birds envelop you. And looking down you can see the life in evidence everywhere:

Ladybug on Roussanne trunk

In April, there's still enough moisture in the air to provide a nice sense of distance, as visible in this view over the western edge of our property toward the peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains roughly eight miles away:

Looking west from Crosshairs block in April

We'll be getting all this growth under control in coming weeks, with the goals of retaining the lovely moisture we got this winter, allowing cold air to drain and so reducing our risk of frost, and leaving the soil as undisturbed as possible while doing so to protect the soil networks. So the picture is going to change by the day.

I'll leave you with one photo, from a perspective easily visible if you approach Tablas Creek on Vineyard Drive from the south. As an introduction to Tablas Creek, I don't feel like we could do much better:

Tablas Creek sign and owl box on Scruffy Hill

Happy April, everyone.


Budbreak 2024: Right on Time

This winter has continued to follow a pattern something close to the platonic ideal of a Paso Robles winter. Some November rain to get the cover crop started. A cold December, to force the vines into dormancy. Regular and plentiful rain January through March, to keep soil temperatures down, but with sunny and warmer intervals, to encourage cover crop growth. And then a turn in April toward spring-like weather. And as we'd expect, as we passed the spring equinox we've started to see budbreak in our early-sprouting varieties. Below are Viognier (left) and Syrah (right):

Budbreak 2024 - Viognier Budbreak 2024 - Syrah

The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the classic nature of what we've seen:

2023-24 Winter Rainfall through March

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, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Syrah tend to go first, followed by Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. We've seen budbreak in all the early varieties, but are still waiting even for the middle varieties like Marsanne, which I was surprised to find still fully dormant on a ramble around the vineyard yesterday:

Budbreak 2024 - Marsanne

This year is about average for us, significantly later than most of our drought years, though a couple of weeks earlier than 2023. The timing that we're seeing comes despite that we haven't recorded a below-freezing night here at our weather station since February 12th. That budbreak waited some six weeks after our last frost reinforces the importance of wet soils, which hold cool temperatures better than dry soils do. For an overview, here's when we saw budbreak the last dozen years:

2023: First week of April
2022 Mid-March
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

In addition to the variation by variety, there's variation by elevation and vineyard block. Grenache is a good example. I took the following four photos as I walked up the hill. The first photo is from the bottom of the block, where cool air settles at night. You can see the buds swelling, but no leaves yet:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache bottom of hill

A little further up the hill, you see the first leaves emerging:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache lower middle of hill

At roughly two-thirds of the way up the hill, you see some buds unfurling larger leaves:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache upper middle of hill

And at the top of the hill, nearly all the buds are out:

Budbreak 2024 - Grenache top of hill

It will be another few weeks before we see much sprouting in late-emerging grapes like. This is Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right), both looking more or less as they would have in mid-winter:

Budbreak 2024 - Roussanne

Budbreak 2024 - Mourvedre

Now our worries turn to frost. 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 a May frost cost us 20% of our production in 2022, with Mother's Day marking the unofficial end of frost season. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

That said, there's nothing particularly scary in our long-term forecast. We're supposed to get one more late-winter storm later this week, but it doesn't seem likely to drop below freezing. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2024 vintage.


The most recent atmospheric river was great news for Paso Robles wine country

That last California storm was a doozy. Los Angeles got nearly an entire year's worth of rainfall in one day. The mountains outside Santa Barbara received enough rain that water levels at Lake Cachuma rose more than 5 feet and are now at the spillway. The Sierra Nevada stations recorded more than five feet of snow. We even had two tornadoes touch down here in San Luis Obispo county, the first time tornadoes have been recorded here since 2004. Thankfully, California was well prepared for these storms, and loss of life and property appears to have been pretty low.

Here in Paso Robles, we were north of the areas most affected by the storm. But still, it was wet, wild, and windy, with about 2.5" falling on Sunday and another inch over the next few days. I posted this video on Sunday, taken out our back deck. Turn the sound on to hear the wind:

To keep our people safe and potential customers off the road, we closed our tasting room Sunday. Still, Neil braved the storm to see how things looked and sent some photos and videos. The vineyard was holding up great. Most of the three inches of rain we received had soaked in, with only a little flowing down the new drainage channel we built this winter:

Drainage channel draining

The capacity of these calcareous soils to absorb water is amazing. And particularly at this time of year, with the cover crops so well established, we hardly ever worry about erosion. But it's still a substantial test to get three inches of rain in a day, or six inches in five days. Working in our favor is the fact that, unlike last January, when we got 20 inches of rain in three weeks on top of already-saturated soils, what we're seeing this year is well within historical norms. In fact, you can barely distinguish the average from the actual rainfall in our monthly rainfall graph:

Rainfall 2023-24 vs Avg through February

Even the roads held up well, thanks to the matting of straw, reeds, and rushes that we placed over them earlier this winter:

Matting on roads

Overall, we're at 111% of normal rainfall to date, mostly because February is only about one-third done and it's typically our second-wettest month. There's every reason to expect more rainfall before the calendar turns to March. But the next week looks sunny, which will be lovely, as it gives time for the soils to draw that water down to deeper layers and is prime growing season for the cover crops. Already, it's so green it practically hurts your eyes:

Oak Tree and Green Vineyard

The sheep are loving all the new grass, particularly after having been on dry feed for a week in our barn while the storm blew through. At this point, we'll likely be able to leave them out in the vineyard in future storms, since the root systems are well enough established that we're no longer particularly worried about soil compaction.

Sheep on Scruffy Hill

I'll leave you with one last photo, which showcases the ingenuity of our vineyard team. We choose to put our compost pile in one of the lowest sections of the vineyard, where water drains in periods of heavy rain. In the late fall, we arrange our compost piles perpendicular to the flow of that water so that water is infused with the nutrients as it flows through: a sort of compost tea on a grand scale. Then, we dug a series of catchment basins downstream from the compost piles. This slows the flow of the water and encourages it to soak in rather than running off. Finally, once those basins start to fill up, we pump the nutrient and microbe-infused water out and spray it onto our nearby vineyard blocks between rainstorms. This shares all the goodness that's in the compost piles across many acres of the property.

Spraying compost tea from retention basins

So, if you were reading headlines about the storms and wondering about how the vineyards in Paso Robles were faring, you don't need to worry. Things are looking great. 


A welcome, gentle start to the Paso Robles rainy season

What a difference a year makes. This week last year we were in the middle of a three-week stretch where four separate atmospheric river storms slammed into the California Central Coast, totaling nearly 20 inches of rain. That was more than we'd received any of the three previous winters, and all that water overwhelmed the creeks, culverts, and drainage basins and produced flooding with visual images so dramatic that we found ourselves the subject of stories in Decanter, Wine Spectator, Fox Weather, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the BBC.

Still, while last year was extreme, it's usually wet in December. This year's monthly total was 5.13", or 103% of normal for what is typically our second-wettest month. Even better, it's come gently, in three separate storms, each of which spread out across two days. After a November where we received about 80% of our expected precipitation, this year is trending curiously... normally. It's also been relatively warm; after eight below-freezing nights in later November and early December, we haven't frosted since December 13th. These last three warm, wet weeks have provided outstanding conditions for the cover crop to get established, and it's ahead of last year's growth even though we've only seen average (instead of well-above-average) rain:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Lush Cover Crop

It appears that January is continuing with more of the same pattern. Last night brought another half-inch of rain, and there are two more small storms in the 10-day forecast, though nothing that looks like it's going to really dump on us. As long as we get these periodic smaller storms, that's just fine. We do need it to stay wet in January (typically our wettest month of the year, at an average of 5.81" of rain) because it accounts for nearly a quarter of our annual total. Our core rainy season is just four months, with December through March accounting for 78% of our total rainfall since we installed our weather station in 1996. If we don't get our moisture then, it's hard to make it up later.

We are a long way from worrying about oversaturation; there's no water flowing yet in Las Tablas Creek, and while the larger creeks and rivers have had a little water in them in the immediate aftermath of the storms, they're a long way from the steady flows that we saw well into spring in 2023. That said, the soils are deep brown and wet down through the root zones of both grapevines and cover crop. And water-loving plants (and fungi) are having a field day:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Mushrooms

A priority for us at this time of year is doing everything we can to encourage the absorption of the rain that falls and discourage runoff. One of the techniques that we use is keyline plowing. This ancient technique prescribes digging deep furrows in alternate rows of our dry-farmed blocks, keeping roughly perpendicular to the slope. These furrows slow the downhill flow of water and encourage absorption instead of runoff. What's more, because these furrows cut through the layers but don't turn the soil over, the disruption that they provide to the soil networks is minimal. A photo of our Scruffy Hill block is a great example:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Scruffy Hill

So if the soils are so nice and wet, why are we hoping for regarding additional rain? Well, there are two reasons. First, the calcareous soils here in west Paso Robles have a tremendous capacity to absorb, store, and transport water to deeper layers. Additional rain will help recharge the underground rivers and lakes (and everyone's wells). Second, wet soils have a greater capacity to stay cool compared to drier soils, and rising soil temperatures is one of the most important factors in determining the date of bud break. Rain well into March last year helped keep our vines dormant longer than we've seen in any of our drier seasons, and every week that the vines stay dormant through March and April measurably reduces our risk from spring frosts.

But that's a worry for the future. For now, we'll glory in the lovely green growth we're seeing everywhere, the blue skies overhead during this period between storm systems, and feel great about a season that has so far felt benign. After all the excitement of the last two years, we'd be happy with a little bit of boring.

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Long View
 


The brief, lovely season with the last of the fall colors and the first shoots of green

You can feel the weather changing as we exit November. The dry offshore winds and the extreme diurnal shifts of the early part of the month are just a memory. In its place we've got weak low pressure systems in the Pacific, regular cloud cover overhead, and mornings damp enough that we have to check the rain gauge to know if it rained overnight or if that was just the fog. We haven't had a lot of rain yet -- just one storm the weekend before Thanksgiving that dropped about an inch and a half -- but you can feel it coming.

And we're in the brief, beautiful season where we've got the last of the fall colors on the vines and the first of the winter’s green grass coming up. Yesterday, that combined with ground fog lifting and rain-heavy clouds rolling in to make for stunning vistas everywhere you turned:

Fog lifting - over Crosshairs

The vines themselves are lovely, but the view from the center of the vineyard, over our biodynamic plantings, was just as impressive in a different color palette:

Fog lifting - Biodynamic plantings

And even the drive in was majestic. I felt like I was in a movie:

Fog lifting - Vineyard Drive

The rain we got was a perfect amount to get the cover crop germinated, without being so much to give us any worries about erosion. The shoots of grass soften the landscape, like an oil painting's subtle wash of Cadmium green under the autumn yellows and browns:

Fog lifting - green grass

The earth, where you can see it, turns a lovely dark brown, as in this young Mourvedre block near the top of our tallest hill:

Fog lifting - in Santos Block

Harvest finished recently enough that there are still ample second crop clusters, particularly on Grenache, just waiting to provide tasty snacks for the sheep when they get let back into the vineyard: 

Fog lifting - second crop

The vines still have their leaves because we've only dropped below freezing a couple of times, and never gotten cold enough to really force them into dormancy. That means that you can identify the different blocks by their autumn tones, from the ocher of Roussanne in the foreground, to the brick red of Tannat in the middle, to the yellow of young Grenache and Syrah on the hillside right and the varied colors of older Muscardin and Bourboulenc vines to the left of the straw-covered farm road: 

Fog lifting - over New Hill

I'll leave you with probably my favorite photo of the morning's ramble, looking south down from our oldest Counoise block, with terraced Syrah vines on the right, and rows of Roussanne vines behind leading down to Las Tablas Creek and the fog-shrouded, oak-covered hillsides beyond.

Fog lifting - looking south over Counoise and Syrah

We know we won't have long with this landscape. One hard freeze (possible as soon as this weekend) will put an end to the fall colors, while the green of winter takes over. And that is lovely too. But this transitional season, with its rich, warm colors and softer edges, feels fleeting and special. We'll enjoy it while we can.


2023 Harvest Recap: Late, but Worth the Wait

On Thursday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2023 harvest. Well, mostly, at least. We completed the last pick. There's still some of that pick that is sitting on straw in one of our greenhouses, working to get that last little bit of concentration. This last pick was a full month later than the last pick in 2022. If you've been following along with the growing season, that won't be a surprise. But it's still a relief. 

Last Bin of Roussanne

2023 was our coolest year since 2011. That cool weather, combined with a late start thanks to our record rainfall last winter, meant that we came out of dormancy late, hit every marker late, and harvested late. At the beginning of October we were only 10% done, and with El Nino looming in the Pacific, had real worries as to whether or not we'd get the crop in before it started to rain. But we got lucky. The weather warmed up in October, the rain (and frosts) held off, and we were able to pick everything. Check out the degree days trend for the year. 2023 is the bold, red dotted line. The key inflection point is at the beginning of October, at which it bends back up and since we've seen more-or-less average heat accumulation:

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through November 9th

Another way of looking at the cool year is going month by month compared to normal. We've had two months that were slightly warmer than average (July and October), three that were slightly cooler than normal (April, May, and August), and two that were significantly chillier than normal (June and September):

Degree Days by Month 2023 vs Average

As you would suspect, the cool September didn't exactly cause fruit to come tumbling in. But once it warmed up in October, things shifted into high gear. That month included our busiest-ever week of over 140 tons between October 8th and 14th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin or Lignée programs, and orange estate-grown fruit. While the timing of the arrival of our purchased grapes is more variable, the estate fruit forms an almost perfect bell curve:

2023 Harvest tons by week

Yields were up 39.9% overall off the estate vs. 2022, which sounds amazing, but it's more a reflection of how low 2022 was than that 2023 was some crazy windfall. We also have some new acreage in production, which means that even with all those new grapes we averaged 3.04 tons/acre. A list of our other vintages that saw crop levels right around 3 tons per acre reads like a "greatest hits" collection and includes 2003, 2007, 2014, 2016, and 2019. But it's worth noting that there's a lot of variation in how different grapes did this year. The grapes that were up sharply were either the whites that were impacted by last year's frosts (Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Picpoul, and Roussanne) plus Grenache Noir, which saw the most significant increase in producing acreage. Other grapes were flat or even (in the cases of Viognier and Cinsaut) down a bit:

Grape 2023 Yields (tons) 2022 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2022
Viognier 10.1 11.9 -15.1%
Marsanne 9.0 8.3 +8.4%
Grenache Blanc 29.3 14.2 +106.3%
Picpoul Blanc 7.2 4.2 +71.4%
Vermentino 13.0 8.7 +49.4%
Bourboulenc 7.2 5.9 +22.0%
Roussanne 26.2 10.5 +149.5%
Other whites 3.2 4.1 -22.0%
Total Whites 105.2 67.8 +55.2%
Grenache 97.1 52.5 +85.0%
Syrah 41.7 39.9 +4.5%
Mourvedre 47.4 42.9 +10.5%
Tannat 15.3 13.5 +13.3%
Counoise 22.4 14.4 +55.6%
Cinsaut 3.6 3.8 -5.3%
Other reds 7.1 8.0 -11.3%
Total Reds 234.6 175.0 +34.1%
Total 339.8 242.8  +39.9%

In trying to pull out trends that aren't just reflections of 2022's weirdness, it seems to me that early grapes (like Viognier, Marsanne, Cinsaut, and Syrah) were pretty much flat compared to last year's low levels, so below-average historically. Vermentino and Grenache Blanc look like exceptions to that rule, but they were frozen last year and even their healthier yields this year are a little below our long-term norms. The grapes that flowered and ripened in the middle of the cycle (think Grenache Noir, Tannat, and Bourboulenc) all saw above-average yields and in many cases were up notably from last year. And the late-sprouting grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne were somewhere in the middle, up from last year but still around our long-term averages.

Ideally, the outstanding vine health this year pays us off in two ways. First, all that leaf area combined with relatively modest yields should translate into great intensity in the wines. That's consistent with what we're seeing with the deep colors and dramatic flavors in the wines we're tasting so far. But the second payoff is that the cane growth and this year's lack of frosts should put the vines in position to produce well next year too. The buds that will produce next year's growth, after all, are already formed. They're just waiting for the arrival of spring to show themselves.

We had 129 harvest lots, an increase of 14 vs. 2022. These included 12 more estate lots (94 instead of 82), two more Lignée lots (4 instead of 2) and the same number of Patelin lots (31). The combination of the increased fruit off the estate and some larger Patelin lots meant that we processed 35% more fruit this year than we did in 2022. No wonder the cellar team was ready to celebrate! In the photo below of our harvest chalkboard, estate lots are in white, while purchased lots are green. Each line represents one pick. And yes, we have five more lots that we're going to have to figure out how to fit into those last three lines:

Harvest chalkboard nearly done

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

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55
2022 22.14 3.70
2023 22.77 3.51

It's been a long time since we saw sugar and (especially) pH numbers like this. In fact, you need to go back to 2010 to find a comparable year. How big a difference does 0.19 pH points make? A lot more than you might think. pH is measured in a logarithmic scale, so a pH of 3 has ten times the concentration of acid ions as a pH of 4. So the average pH of 3.51 is 55% more acidic than the average pH of 3.70 we saw last year. That's why Chelsea described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry" in an Instagram Live we recorded mid-harvest. We can thank this year's cooler weather and lack of heat spikes for the vibrant acids, but I also think it points to the health of the vineyard thanks to the ample rain last winter and the years of regenerative farming that have allowed it to hold that water in a zone where the vines' roots can find it. 

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

Joanna digging out Mourvedre

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage, and she was enthusiastic: "the long ripening really helped us out with the depth and intensity. Even this early the aromas are so nuanced, layered, and complex. If this is a sign of things to come I think we've got a really exciting vintage ahead of us." We're all looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2023 even better in coming weeks.

Mourvedre in the press

With rain in the forecast for later this week, we've been pushing to get the vineyard prepped for winter. We've been spreading compost, seeding cover crop, and laying straw on our vineyard roads:

Straw on the farm road

Just as this year has gone since the beginning, it looks like we'll get it done just in time. We've been telling ourselves, for what feels like months, that we'll have a rest when we get to Thanksgiving. It looks like that's about right. And there will be plenty to give thanks for.

Jordy on quad


Knowing rain is on the way makes our brief, lovely autumn all the more special

It's always a shock when daylight savings ends, and I realize it's already dark as I wrap up my work day. But there are rewards of having the sun set while I'm still at work, not least that I can look out my office window, realize that the light is breathtaking, and grab my phone and head out to the vineyard. I did that yesterday and got some shots that I loved. First, a photo of Sadie (who turns 9 today) prowling through my beauty shot. The aura of light makes it look like I photoshopped her into the picture, but I didn't.

Sadie in the sunset

The low sun angles brings out the autumn colors in the vines. A different view of the vineyard block above, looking south over the Syrah and Roussanne instead of west, shows the warm yellows and oranges that join the green in this season.

Autumn Syrah and Roussanne

I got another view that highlights the fall colors looking downhill through our oldest Counoise block (also the oldest Counoise block in California):

Autumn Counoise

I sometimes feel like I've taken every picture there is to take here, but I got a perspective I've never noticed before, with the sun at my back silhouetting one of our big valley oak trees against the warm colors of an old Grenache block. I'm not sure there is a more "Paso Robles in autumn" shot than this one:

Oak silhouette on Grenache

I got up on top of the ridge you see in the above photo and was able to get a photo of the sun setting where there was also enough light to illuminate the Grenache vines in the foreground:

Sunset over Syrah and Grenache

We've started shifting our focus from bringing in our grapes (there's only a little Roussanne left out) to prepping our land for the coming rainy season. This tractor probably isn't going to have any more grapes to haul:

Dramatic tractor

We know we've gotten lucky with frosts. Much of Paso Robles has gotten a few already, with some temperatures down in the mid-20s. That's not an issue for grapevines that have already been picked, but if there's still fruit out, a hard frost will kill off the leaves and mean there won't be any more ripening because photosynthesis is over for the year. At that point, the leaves turn brown and crispy, ready to fall off as the vine transitions into its winter dormancy. Those are the conditions that I see every day looking out my window, as we had a few frosts last week in the Templeton Gap. Now that vineyard -- source of our Full Circle Pinot Noir -- looks ready for winter. Soon, the whole vineyard will:

Pinot with brown leaves
This brief-but-beautiful autumn season will end as soon as we get a hard freeze out at Tablas, which could happen as soon as this weekend. And whether it freezes or not, it looks like we're about to make our transition to winter. The first winter storm of the season is forecast to arrive next Tuesday:

That transition is perfectly timed, from our perspective. We should be done picking this week. We'll have a chance to get cover crop seed down where it needs to go before the rain. We should have a chance to do some keyline plowing to help slow down the surface flow of water and encourage deeper penetration. And the quantities are perfect for a first storm: enough to do more than wet the surface, but not enough to worry about erosion before the cover crop has sprouted.

We feel like since October the 2023 season has played out just as we'd have hoped it would. It seems like that's going to continue for at least a little longer.

Autumn sunset vertical


Harvest 2023 update: a deep exhale as warm weather brings the finish line in sight

Three weeks ago we were all pretty nervous. We'd had the coolest September in our history, and not just by a little. High temperatures were more than 7.5°F cooler than average, which on top of the delayed growing season meant that as the calendar flipped to October we'd only finished about 10% of the harvest off the estate. With el nino brewing in the Pacific, we were facing a real risk of serious rain coming while significant quantities of our fruit were still out on the vine. We were hoping that the warmer weather that began with the onset of October would stick around long enough to have a real impact on the ripening of our grapes and the timeline of our harvest. Spoiler alert: it did.

Harvest chalkboard October 24th

Not only have the last three weeks been warmer than normal, they've been nearly as warm as we'd expect September to be. In essence, the months have flipped places. While September's average high was 80.9°F, since October 1st our average high has been 84°F. This has reversed the trend in Growing Degree Days and brought 2023 back up away from the record-cool years of 2010 and 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023 thru 10-23

Even better, that warm weather has come just the way we prefer it. Although we've had eight days in the 90s, the highest high temperature was just 96.4°F. Both of the warm stretches (October 4th-8th and October 18th-20th) were followed by at least three days that topped out in the 70s. That meant that the grapevines could continue to build sugars without losing their acids and without being under an unhealthy amount of stress. And as often happens when a delayed harvest finally gets some heat, the fruit came rolling in. Most days we've had a lineup of bins in our parking lot, waiting to be processed, as we're running presses of newly-harvested whites and newly-fermented reds. The dance of the forklifts is something to behold.

Bins of grapes everywhere

These harvest days start before sunup and finish after dark, with what seems like endless rounds of washing in between. After all, every tank we have will get used five or six times this year. Every press gets used three or four times each day. And all the equipment gets cleaned up and put away every night. I love this photo I got of Gustavo cleaning the red press today as the sun was setting:

Gustavo washing the press

The fruit that we've been getting, and the young wines that we've been tasting, look tremendous. We're seeing some of the deepest colors we can remember. The grapes have lovely freshness and lift. I spoke to Chelsea last week for an Instagram Live harvest update, and she described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry". Now maybe you have to work in a winery cellar to dream about chemistry at this time of year, but it gives you a sense of the lovely balance of sugars and acids that we're seeing.

We don't have to look far to know that the clock is ticking. The fall foliage colors on the vines, like this Counoise block below, are telling us that the end is near: 

Fall colors in Counoise

Still, the grapes that are still out on the vines are there because they need this time. The two clusters below (Counoise, left, and Roussanne, right) are looking and tasting great, but they're sitting only at about 20° Brix and will benefit from another week or two out in the sun:

Counoise cluster cropped Roussanne cluster

The mornings are usually starting with a little low-lying fog:

Fog lifting between Counoise rows

Walking around the vineyard, there are more blocks where the grapes have already been picked than there are with crop still hanging. That gives us the chance to give some of the younger vines (like this three-year-old Syrah) a little post-harvest drink:

Post-harvest irrigation

We're also giving a little sigh of relief because it looks like yields are significantly recovered from last year. It's most dramatic in the varieties that were frozen last year; we've harvested double the quantity of Grenache Blanc that we did last year and Vermentino is up 49%. But even grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, none of which were impacted by last year's frosts, are seeing crops something like 10% higher than last year. We've already picked 30 more tons of Grenache than we did in 2022, with a couple of blocks still to come. And it seems clear that Roussanne will come in with higher quantity than last year, when it finally gets ripe. Now our biggest unknown is Mourvedre, and when I saw Neil today he sounded more relaxed than he has in weeks. We're no longer worried about whether the fruit will be good, or whether it will get ripe. Now we're just worrying about where we're going to put it. And that's a huge relief.


Harvest 2023 begins. What a difference a year makes!

On Tuesday, we brought in our first two lots, both for Patelin: a little less than seven tons of Viognier from a vineyard called New Creations and a little more than six tons of Syrah from Tofino. Both looked great. Yesterday, we brought in the Pinot Noir from the vineyard my dad planted. Today we got the first picks off the estate, seven bins of Vermentino and two bins of (surprise) Roussanne, as well as another Patelin de Tablas lot of Roussanne from Nevarez. And we're off:

Harvest Chalkboard - First 3 days
All this is a far cry from last year, when sustained heat pushed us to one of our earliest-ever harvests. We started bringing fruit in off the estate on August 17th, and by the 14th of September we were nearly three-quarters done:

Finished Harvest Chalkboard

I'll share some thoughts at the end of the blog as to what this all means, but first I want to set the scene for you and share some of the images of these early days of harvest. I'll start with the first bins of Viognier, from Austin Collins' viewpoint on the forklift:

First Patelin Viognier from Forklift

Neil got a photo of the first bin of Syrah, waiting in front of the sorting table for de-stemming. He pointed out that it just happened to be in bin #1:

First bin of Syrah in Bin #1

The pick of Pinot Noir from our place is always a milestone, and the cellar team traditionally joins the vineyard crew for it. Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg got some great photos. First, the scene as dawn broke:

Picking Pinot at Dawn - JL

Next, a view of the bins on the back of the trailer. That's Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things... the beginning of his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek!

Bins of Pinot with David

The fruit looked great. Those are Jordy's boots:

Looking down on Pinot bins - JL

And finally the whole crew, all smiles at the end of the pick:

Harvest crew at Haas Vineyard Cropped

After those two mellow starting days, today is starting to feel like harvest is getting into full swing. We're pressing Vermentino and Roussanne, which made a surprise early appearance here thanks to the higher elevation and healthy young vines on Jewel Ridge. We've had perfect conditions, with chilly nights and warm but not hot days. The last wisps of fog were still lifting as Neil snapped this shot at the end of the Roussanne harvest:

Harvesting Roussanne on Jewel Ridge

The Roussanne was textbook; note the classic russet color of the berries, one of the signifiers that they've reached ripeness:

Roussanne looking russet

We're also doing a wide sampling across all the relatively early-ripening varieties, including this Syrah. The color is amazingly dark given that this is just a sample and it hasn't been left to macerate:

Sampling

If you're wondering why we're so much later than last year (OK, the last several years) you need look no further than the cumulative growing degree days, a common measurement of heat accumulation during the growing season. Although July was warm enough that we jumped ahead of the 2010-2011 vintages that we'd been tracking, it cooled back off in August and we're still significantly cooler than any year since 2011. What's more, we're a whopping 23% cooler as measured in growing degree days (dotted red line) than we were last year (dotted pale blue line):

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through September 13th

It's too early to say much about yields. The Pinot Noir harvest came in roughly where last year's did, but conditions in the Templeton Gap are different than they are out at the winery, and it didn't suffer any frost damage last year. Neil is thinking that we'll likely see healthy crops, up measurably from last year and maybe even a bit above our long-term averages. Jordy is thinking a little more conservatively, predicting that the combination of plentiful but small clusters, small berries, and some loss due to shatter and millerandage is likely to combine to produce yields above last year but still below our long-term averages. We'll know more in a few weeks, once we've completed the estate harvest of a few more grapes. 

One thing that is clear is that we're looking at a harvest that seems more like a marathon than last year's sprint. There isn't any major heat in the forecast, with most of next week supposed to top out in the 70s and low 80s. That's ideal for quality, and likely to give us the flexibility to bring things in gradually and in multiple passes. But it does mean that we will almost certainly still be harvesting in November. That wouldn't have been unusual in the 2000s, but it's been a while since it's happened. With el nino building in the Pacific, our current worry is whether we'll be done before we get our first winter rains. That's likely a ways off, but anyone who has a line to the weather gods, please put in a good word.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights, aromas, and energy of harvest. Stay tuned for updates.


Veraison 2023 suggests a mid-September kickoff to harvest... plus photo updates on every Rhone red

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape development where the berries stop accumulating mass and start accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. The onset of veraison comes roughly six weeks before the beginning of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for what sort of schedule we're likely looking at. And it's lovely. Witness this Tannat cluster, roughly halfway through veraison as of this morning:

Veraison 2023 - Tannat

The fact that I'm writing about veraison in late August is remarkable enough, though anyone following the progress of the vineyard this year will know that we're looking at our latest harvest since at least 2011. But at this point, with the weather turned warm and perfect, things are moving fast. I thought I'd take a quick romp through all the different red Rhone varieties to give you a sense of where each stands. At the end, I've included a chart with how this year compares to other recent years and made some predictions about when we're likely to start picking.

We spotted our first color in the vineyard in Syrah on August 7th. Now, a little more than two weeks later, every variety is showing at least the first stages of color change, and the early grapes are mostly red. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors, and go roughly from most-veraison to least. The cluster here is a bit ahead of the average in the vineyard, and I'd estimate that we're probably around 70% through veraison in Syrah overall:

Veraison 2023 - Syrah

Next is probably Muscardin. I'm not sure whether this is unusual or not, since it is our newest arrival and we don't have many years of history. It's not as dark red as Syrah (nor will it be at harvest) but overall it looks like it's about 50% of the way through:

Veraison 2023 - Muscardin

Next, somewhat surprisingly, is Mourvedre. That doesn't mean that we're expecting it to start coming in before mid-October, but it's not unusual that we're seeing fairly advanced color change at this point. It just takes longer than the others between this stage and being ready to pick. These clusters are fairly typical, and I'd estimate it's 30% through overall:

Veraison 2023 - Mourvedre

Grenache is next in line, at roughly 20% veraison overall. It's always a particularly pretty grape to watch change color, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month:

Veraison 2023 - Grenache

Terret Noir is at a similar percent through veraison as Grenache, maybe 20% overall, though it's a little more uniform because we only have one block. This was one of the most advanced clusters. Note the characteristic large berries:

Veraison 2023 - Terret Noir

Vaccarese was still mostly green. We're getting into grapes where it was often a challenge to find clusters with more than a few pink berries, and I'd estimate Vaccarese at 2-3% veraison:

Veraison 2023 - Vaccarese

Cinsaut was similar, which was a surprise to me. It's not a super late ripener, and the literature says it ripens pretty much in synch with Grenache. But the cluster below was one of just a few with any color at all:

Veraison 2023 - Cinsaut

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

Veraison 2023 - Counoise

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison. The grapes turn from green to something a little yellower, and soften and start to get sweet. They also become more translucent. The process happens over a continuum as it does in the reds. Viognier goes first, followed by Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, with Picpoul and Roussanne bringing up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that these clusters of Viognier (left) and Grenache Blanc (right) are starting to pick up:

Veraison 2023 - Viognier

Veraison 2023 - Grenache Blanc

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

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between the onset of veraison and the beginning of harvest, it's not totally constant, and will be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool summer and a plentiful crop in 2010 gave us a full seven weeks between veraison and our first harvest, while 2021's consistent heat and low yields gave us just a five week interim. Each vintage since 2010 is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 August 24 34
2022 July 12 August 17 36
2023 August 7 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (34 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 10th and September 25th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall, influenced as well by the crop levels, since lighter crops ripen faster than heavier ones. It looks like we're seeing medium crop levels this year, better than the last few years but not at the levels we saw in a year like 2017, which suggests we'd trend toward the middle of the range above. But it has been a cool summer, and you'd expect it to be cooler in late August and early September than you would in late July and early August. I'm not expecting to have to wait into mid-September this year or to challenge 2011 as our latest start to harvest ever, but time will tell. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. In a few weeks, we'll start sampling the early varieties, looking for the moment when the flavors are fully developed and the balance of sugars and acids ideal. In the cellar, we've already started to get ready by finishing our blending of the 2022s and pulling out and checking on all the tanks and equipment we'll need once harvest begins. It's likely too that we'll see some grapes from Patelin or Lignée vineyards, and from the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir, before anything comes off our estate. Those grapes should start coming in a couple of weeks.

So, now we wait, and enjoy the show. We have an idea of how much time is in our hourglass, and we know it's been turned over.