After two of our five rainiest months ever, we're ready for a break... but grateful for the moisture

I left California three weeks ago, just after Christmas, to spend some time in New England with family. At the time, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about how our winter was shaping up. We'd banked nearly 13" of rain and were at something like 170% of the rain we'd have expected at that point in the winter. The day I left, it started raining and essentially hasn't stopped. With the two-thirds of an inch that we got today, this makes 20 of the last 21 days we've seen measurable precipitation. The end-of-December rain pushed us to 13.28" for the month, making it our second-wettest December in the 25 years since we installed our weather station and a top-5 rainfall month overall.

Then came January. A series of atmospheric river storms paraded across the Pacific and slammed into California. Some were aimed farther north, but still dropped a couple of inches of rain. And one arrived on early in the morning of Monday, January 9th with its plume of moisture directed squarely at the Central Coast. We tallied 5.65" that day, including more than 4" in its peak between 1am and 10am. And when we arrived to see how things looked at the winery that morning, we realized that we couldn't even get there because Las Tablas Creek was flowing over Adelaida Road:

It wasn't until Wednesday that we could make it into our facility, and Thursday that we could reopen our tasting room. Thanks to some great work by our neighbors at Halter Ranch the debris blocking the culvert that was causing the creek to flow over the road was removed before the road was critically damaged. There was a section of Adelaida Road a few miles east of us that wasn't so lucky. And we had to close again this past Saturday because a new storm made access to the winery unsafe. Residents and businesses out here are still picking up the pieces, and what we're seeing is minor compared to the scale of damage around the state, with 19 deaths so far and floods forcing people from their homes from Sacramento to Santa Barbara.

Still, while we wish it had been spread out more, we're grateful to have received the rain. And when I got out in the vineyard today, it was stunning: lush and green from the saturated soils yet with minimal signs of erosion even on our steepest slopes:

After the rain - Counoise and cover crop

There wasn't really any standing water, even at the bottom of the hills, thanks to the remarkable ability our calcareous soils have to transport enormous quantities of water from the surface to deeper layers. That said, there was some water slowly trickling downhill in blocks like this head-trained Mourvedre at the northern edge of the property. It was wet enough that I nearly lost my boots getting this shot:

After the rain - water in head-trained Mourvedre

For all its beauty now, it's clear that things were pretty wild a week ago. You can see the deep cuts in the channels where valleys became rushing creeks (left) and the impact of 36 hours of water flowing over Adelaida Road (right):

After the rain - water flowing from Halter Ranch

After the rain - erosion on Adelaida Road

With nearly half the month still to come, January 2023 is already our third-wettest month in our history, trailing only January 2017 and (from before I started writing this blog) February 1998. We're at 281% of expected rainfall for this point in the winter and above our full-winter long-term average. After three years of drought, that's a huge relief.

Rainfall by month through January 2023

You can see from the rainfall distribution above why this season is so critical for us. We get three-quarters of our annual rainfall between December and March. If we have an extended winter dry stretch, it's almost impossible to make it up later. And drought impacts are cumulative. Grapevines generally do fine the first year of a drought cycle, thanks to their accumulated vigor. But starting the second year, you see the reduction in yields, and by the third year you start to see impacts on vine health and mortality. That's played out for us the last three years. 2020 saw roughly average yields. But 2021 saw yields off by 26% and 2022 saw them decline another 8%. A quick look at our available wines shows many more sold-out than for sale. And that's before we've even gotten to the 2022 vintage, from which there will be several wines we just won't be able to make. So getting rain this winter was particularly important.

Vineyards themselves are typically resilient in the face of extreme rainfall events. Those events typically come in winter, when the vines are dormant, and grapevines' deep roots play an important role in helping hold soil in place. Vineyards that are regeneratively farmed tend to do even better. Both no-till farming and planted cover crops (one or the other is required for regenerative certifications) keep surface erosion to a minimum. The focus on building up the organic matter in your soils helps them hold more moisture. And the biodiversity in regenerative farming systems tends to create a denser web of life than monocultures. Witness this section in the middle of the vineyard, which a decade ago was one of our most erosion-prone areas but which we planted to a mix of perennial crops that would act as attractors for beneficial insects. The combination of shrubs and deep grass, already well-established because it hasn't been tilled in years, made for one of the least-soggy sections of the vineyard:

After the rain - Biodynamic plantings

Looking forward, we're supposed to get a few more showery days and then a solid week at least of sun. That will be welcome for everyone, from vineyard to residents to businesses. It should give the county a chance to get out and repair the damaged roads. It should shift the cover crop into overdrive, and make for some very happy sheep. It will give the soils a chance to transfer the water to deeper layers and free up space at the surface for the next storm. It might even give us a chance to get started on our pruning, which we've been unable to do because pruning in wet weather encourages the spread of fungal diseases. But as happy as we are with what we've received, we're hoping this isn't the end of the rain. The local reservoirs still have significant room; while Lake Nacimiento is at 87% capacity, Lake San Antonio is only at 32%. At Tablas Creek we're chipping away at an accumulated rainfall deficit of 28" from the last three years of drought. Plus there would be benefits during the growing season, as soils with high moisture content stay cool longer in the spring and delay budbreak, which would reduce our risk of frost damage. And on a purely aesthetic level, there's a particular character to the green here after winter rain that I love. Who wouldn't want more of this?

After the rain - New Hill and Jewel Ridge

If you were negatively impacted by these storms, please know you have our deepest sympathy. It's been a rough couple of weeks for California. But if you were worried that the vineyards here would be suffering, hopefully we can at least put that to rest. We have high hopes for the 2023 vintage.  


What does the latest atmospheric river storm mean for Paso Robles Wine Country's rain year?

[Editor's note 1/10: I've posted a quick summary of the flooding and other impacts of our January 9th atmospheric river storm in a comment. We're posting regular updates on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. And I'm planning a blog with a more comprehensive report next week.]

Our current atmospheric river storm, which isn't even over yet, has received a lot of press with even big east coast papers like the New York Times and Washington Post giving it front-page coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle is dedicating most of its homepage to stories about the storm and its impacts. Down here in Paso Robles we got 3.53" of rain yesterday and last night, and have received another quarter-inch of rain in showers this afternoon. With other storms just a day or two out, I thought I'd do a quick assessment of what the impacts of the rain have been so far and what we're expecting next.

The tl;dr for those of you who start meals by eating dessert: the impacts to this point have been essentially all positive for us. We've already surpassed our rainfall for the winters of 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22. The ground is saturated, but we haven't seen either flooding or noteworthy erosion. And Las Tablas Creek is flowing for the first time since early 2019:

We're at just about 200% of our expected January 5th total for the rainfall year which started in July. Looking month by month, we more than tripled our normal December rain and finished just a fraction of an inch behind 2004 for our wettest December ever. And unlike last year, when we had a wet December and then an almost totally dry spring, it looks like we'll surpass our normal January rainfall this weekend. Here's what it looks like so far (January's total is through this afternoon, while the expected total is for the entire month):

Rainfall by Month as of January 2023

For the rainfall year, we're up to 19.6" of total rain, with more than half the rainfall season to go. That's terrific. The fact that Las Tablas Creek is flowing is a great sign of the saturation of the soils; there are several irrigation ponds upstream from us, and other than some surface runoff that happens during storms, it's not until those ponds fill up and the top several feet of soil is saturated that the creek flows continuously. Today, the creek is flowing merrily into our lake:

Las Tablas Creek and lake

In the vineyard, you can practically hear the cover crops growing. Although we move the sheep out of the vineyard during rain events (both to provide them shelter and to keep the soil compaction that they cause in very wet weather to a minimum) there will be ample grass whenever it dries out enough to let them back in:

Cover Crop

You can get a sense of how excited they are by all this grass from the video we shared Tuesday on Twitter:

Most people who haven't spent a winter in the Paso Robles area think of it as a desert climate. And it is, in the summer. But the six winter months are wet enough on average, at least in the western fringes of the AVA where we're located, to qualify as a temperate rain forest if those months were extrapolated year-round. That fact, combined with the hilly topography, means that we're pretty well set up for heavy rainfall events. You can get some localized stream flooding (though Las Tablas Creek hasn't flooded in the two decades that I've been out here). You can get some minor mudslides where the roads have been cut through the hills. And you can have downed trees from wind and wet soils that can knock out power. But our calcareous soils are exceptionally porous, which means that they transport massive volumes of water from the surface to deeper layers before they reach saturation. By the time they do saturate, the winter grasses tend to be well-enough established that erosion is minimal (as evidence, check out my photo essay from January 2017 after we'd broken our record for our wettest month ever). Finally, the hilly landscape means that the extra water by and large flows off and fills up our reservoirs rather than flooding our towns. Lake Nacimiento, into which Las Tablas Creek and the rest of our watershed empties, was up to 747.7 feet as of today, 32 feet higher than it was just over a month ago on December 1st, but despite the billions (yes, with a "b") of additional stored gallons of water, the reservoir is still at just 38% of its capacity. Lake San Antonio is at just 13% of its capacity. We can get a lot more rain before we have to start worrying about where it might go.

Looking forward, we're expecting another major Pacific storm Sunday into Monday. And it seems like there's another one lined up behind that later next week. But while we'll be watching the forecast we're not expecting the potentially dangerous impacts for which northern California is preparing. Some of that is because it seems like these storms will be aimed such that the largest precipitation totals will be a little north of us. But just as much, it's because our soils and topography are uniquely well suited to dealing with large amounts of water in a short time. After all, we got more than a dozen inches of rain in a single storm in January 2021, and the impacts were almost all positive.

So while I'll be checking our weather station's totals regularly it won't be with dread. The opposite, really. After consecutive drought-reduced crops (see my recaps for 2021 and 2022 if you want the gory details) I'm hoping for a historically wet winter: something that will replenish our aquifers and reservoirs, delay budbreak to a more normal time frame, and set us up for a couple of years. This has happened before, in winters like 2004-05, 2009-10, and 2016-17. And it feels like we're well on our way to a similar result this year. Let's keep it coming.

Puddle mirror image


Rhone varieties should be (even more) valuable in a California impacted by climate change

Over the last month, I've had three different wine people ask me some version of the same question, asking me to share what I thought were the right grapes to be planting in California right now, given the near-certainty that they'll mature in a future notably warmer (and probably drier) than today. That question is usually followed by another asking whether we're looking outside of the Rhone family for future plantings, or if we think we've already got the right collection of grapes to allow us to succeed. So, in the spirit of using this blog to answer the questions I get every day, let's dive in.

Casual wine drinkers may not realize the full extent of the diversity within the vitis family. There are 79 accepted species of grapes, of which the species that encompasses all non-hybridized wine grapes (vitis vinifera) is just one. Within vitis vinifera more than 5,000 different varieties have been identified. Of course, not all are used to make wine commercially, but in the authoritative tome Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson and her co-authors identify 1,368 different grapes worth documenting for their use in wine around the world. That's a mind-boggling number. What's more, at least half of these have proven useful and adaptable enough to have been brought to regions outside where they first evolved. In California alone, Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis has 479 different non-rootstock varieties in their collection for nurseries, growers, and wineries to purchase. 

Yet if you ask most American wine drinkers to name grape varieties they'll probably struggle to rattle off even a dozen or so. The best known grapes come from high-profile regions in France and Italy. A quick look at the best-selling varietal wines in the United States from 2020 begins with Cabernet Sauvignon and end with Malbec, with the "big" grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat/Moscato, Merlot, and Pinot Noir making up the rest of the top tier. There's a huge dropoff after the first few grapes, and a twelve-fold difference between #1 Cabernet and #8 Malbec. 

What do you notice about those eight grape varieties? One thing that jumps out to me is that they all are best known from regions that we think of, at least in the word of wine, as being either cool (like Burgundy or the Loire) or mid-warmth (like Bordeaux or northern Italy). This is all the more surprising given that all these modern-day regions are cooler than where modern research suggests vitis vinifera was first domesticated in the hot, dry climate of the eastern Mediterranean, somewhere near where modern-day Turkey, Armenia, and Iran meet.

All this is a long way to say that not only is much of California wine made from just a few grapes, but also that those grapes are representative of a narrow, continental European part of the much wider spectrum of grapes used to make wine.

How does California's climate relate to that of, say, France? It's complicated, both because California is big and how hot it is here is determined at least as much by our distance from the ocean as it is by how far north or south we are in the state. But it's still possible to make some general observations. California wine country is quite a lot further south than nearly all of Europe. San Francisco is roughly the same latitude as Seville, in Spain's hot, dry south. There's no part of California that's the same latitude as Burgundy (but Quebec City is). Paso Robles is the same latitude as places in the southern Mediterranean like Tangier and Cyprus and Tripoli. Of course, climate is not determined solely by latitude; California is cooled by the chilly Pacific Ocean, while Europe is warmed by the Gulf Stream. And both regions are subject to the impacts of a warming climate. But when I went to look for the best climate comps to Paso Robles in a blog about our climate from 2017, the closest match wasn't Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or even Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It was the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon.

My point in diving into all this is that if we were looking just for grapes that would do well in the intense sun and summer heat of a place like Paso Robles, we wouldn't start our search in a region like Bordeaux or the Loire. It would be someplace sunnier and drier, and likely farther south. So how were the grapes that are found here chosen? They were what was in demand in the global wine market (or perhaps they were the grapes the people looking to get into grapegrowing and winemaking were familiar with, which is related). You'll see that the mix in Paso Robles, like much of California, is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (image from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance press kit):

Wine Grapes in Paso Robles
It's important to remember that the mix of grapes here wasn't the result of extensive experimentation about what would be best suited for the California climate. So if we were to make the case that Rhone grape varieties might be the right grapes for a California whose climate is already more like that of the Eastern Mediterranean than Continental Europe, and continuing to warm, how would we go about it? We might start with evolution. In just about every case, Rhone grape varieties evolved in hotter climates than grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. Some, like Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and Mourvedre, evolved in Spain. Chateauneuf du Pape is at the northern extent of their viable range. Many others appear to have evolved in the southern Rhone or nearby Languedoc, including Counoise, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardan, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. That leaves four that research suggests evolved in the northern Rhone: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne. You can make the case that the northern Rhone is a similar climate zone to that of Bordeaux or northern Italy. But Aragon, the Spanish homeland of Grenache (known there as Garnacha), and the Levante, the Spanish homeland of Mourvedre, are both significantly warmer and sunnier, as are the areas around and west of Avignon where the bulk of the Rhone grape pantheon evolved.

Ampelography Cover PageLooking at points of origin isn't conclusive evidence. But it's suggestive. Typically a plant is adapted to thrive in the place in which it evolves. That gives us a good clue to where we might look for grapes suited to a warming future California. Another clue is the research that has been done here, particularly in the era before California's wine regions were defined like they are today. Here we're helped by a remarkable 1884 Ampelography of California (cover page featured right) written by Charles Wetmore, the state's first Chief Executive Viticultural Officer. In it, he explicitly tackles the question of the "adaptability to certain locations and uses" of the grapes known at that time in California. Were his conclusions to plant lots of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Nope. He saved for his particular praise Zinfandel and Mataro (Mourvedre) of which he said, "the Zinfandel and Mataro, each good bearers, will each become the favorite basis of our red wine vineyards." I wrote back in 2020 about his enthusiasm for Mataro, of which he says "Although this is not as extensively cultivated now as other varieties for red wine, yet its present popularity demands for it a place next to the Zinfandel; indeed, I believe that for the future it will have a wider range of usefulness."

For cooler regions he recommends Trousseau for its "general adaptability and fine qualities." For drier regions he suggests Grenache, which he says "will succeed and flourish in arid places, where Zinfandel would fail." And he expresses interest in future experiments on grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon ("I believe that those who aim at fine wines of a Bordeaux type cannot afford to be without it") and Spanish whites like Verdelho and Palomino ("Our best success may be in those types"). Zinfandel evolved in the warm southern coast of Croatia and thrived in the heel of Italy as Primitivo before coming to California presumably with southern Italian immigrants. Chalk another mark up for looking to warmer parts of Europe for California's vineyards.

Finally, let's look at what we're seeing in our own vineyards. In another blog from 2020, I talked about how the warming climate is making the higher-acid Rhone whites like Picpoul, Picardan, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche more valuable both here and in the Rhone. I would submit that the same things is true for reds like Counoise, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, and Muscardin. At last night's En Primeur Live broadcast, Chelsea and I were talking about the impact of the newer varieties on the 2021 Esprit de Tablas, which has our entire production of Vaccarese (7%) and Cinsaut (5%) as well as 4% Counoise. My analogy was that adding these grapes, all of which have good acid and in the case of Vaccarese also dark color and tannic grip, was like turning up the contrast on an image, or turning up the bass and treble on a piece of music. They make the wine more dramatic, even as its core character is determined by the mid-palate richness and balance of earth and fruit that Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah provide. We haven't yet found a home in the Mourvedre-based Esprit de Tablas for the even higher-toned, grippier Terret Noir and Muscardin grapes, but they're doing wonderful things to the Syrah that provides the base for our Le Complice bottling.

This is not purely an academic question. There are practical considerations. A widely-shared 2019 article in Wine Business Monthly made the case that within thirty years "many current Napa vineyard locations will be too warm for some Bordeaux varieties to scale luxury-priced wines" and "anyone planting or replanting a vineyard today should be taking climate warming trends and optimum grape-growing temperatures into account." A 2019 study suggested that if global temperatures rose 2°C, grapegrowers in Burgundy and Bordeaux could cut their climate-related losses in half by planting with Mourvedre instead of their current grapes. Just last year, France's Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualite (INAO) approved the use in Bordeaux six new varieties "of interest for adapting to climate change". Closer to home, we're getting more requests through our grapevine nursery for the high-acid grapes in our portfolio -- like the Picardan, below, that we ourselves only first planted in 2013 -- than I can ever remember.

Picardan planting 2013

What the right grapes will be for this warmer, drier California isn't clear yet. But if the rest of the world is looking to the grapes of the Rhone to help mitigate their own climate change concerns, it seems likely that we'll be able to shift within that Rhone family to make sure that even as things get warmer and drier, we'll be able to make great wine. I have faith in the diversity of vitis. And in the blending tradition of Chateauneuf du Pape.


Why this week's early-season storm is the ideal start to our winter season

This week, we had our first serious storm of the winter roll through Paso Robles. It started late Monday night, reached its peak with the passage of a cold front around 8am Tuesday morning, and continued with showers throughout the rest of that day and night. Overall, we got about an inch and three-quarters of rain. Although we did have about a half-inch of rain in mid-September, harvest rain comes with a mix of positive and negative impacts which combine to make it hard to enjoy. Not so the first rain after we've finished picking, which is an unmitigated good. At this point, with the vineyard put to bed for the winter, we're able to sit back and enjoy the show.

Puddles Nov 2022

The passage of that frontal boundary between 8am and 9am saw some of the fastest accumulation of rain I can ever remember out here, with nearly three-quarters of an inch coming down in that one hour. I was doing a Zoom call from home, and couldn't believe what I saw when I checked our weather station:

Hourly Rainfall November 8 2022

If you're wondering what it means for a vineyard to be put to bed for winter, there are a few things we always do after we're done picking. The most important of these are planting the seeds for our cover crop and spreading compost so that they have the best chance to thrive. Last year, our first storm came early enough in mid-October that we were only partway done seeding at the time, and then when it dried out enough for us to get back into the vines, it was dry for six weeks and we lost many of the seeds to birds. Not this year; we expect to see shoots of green within a week in blocks like this one:

Newly seeded block Nov 2022

The couple of inches of rain weren't limited to the Paso Robles area. The entire length of California got significant rain, and one of the storm's most important impacts is that it ended the state's fire season. We've been pretty lucky this year, with no major fires impacting California wine. But knowing the state got enough rain to put an end to any worries about future storms is always a relief.

By yesterday afternoon the storm had moved to our east, leaving puffy clouds, plenty of sun, and dark brown earth. I got this picture a little north of us in southern Monterey County, on my way back from a quick trip north. There's not much more beautiful than California after it rains:

Salinas Valley beauty Nov 2022

What has followed in the storm's aftermath has been good too. It dropped below freezing last night, which will push the vines fully into dormancy. That's a good thing. The vineyard this morning showed frost-covered grape leaves under a bright blue sky:

Frosty morning Nov 2022

Of course, we need more rain than this. But November is off to a good start. Our long-term average is 2.48" of rain for November, and at 1.89" we're already more than three-quarters of the way there, with the month only one-third complete. But as we learned last year, a wet beginning to the rainy season isn't enough. The four-month period between December and March account for three-quarters of our annual rainfall, historically. But that's not to say that early rain doesn't matter. It does. And the amount we got is perfect for getting our cover crop to germinate, should extend the season when we can have our flock of sheep grazing the vineyard, and will give the soil's microbial and fungal activity -- which needs moisture to operate -- an instant boost. So while we definitely need more, we're happy we've gotten what we did, when we did. Now let's keep it going.

Rain Nov 2022


Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful, Late-Fall Edition

Three weeks ago, with the lower sun angles and the vineyard starting to change into its autumn colors, I caught some of this new beauty and shared it in a blog. Since then, we've seen a decisive turn toward early-winter weather. It's been nearly two weeks since a daytime high got out of the 70s. Nights have been routinely in the 30s, but it hasn't frozen yet. We've had a couple of cold fronts push through the area, and the past two days have seen us get a little rain. The result has been one of those rare moments when we have leaves showing fall colors still on the vines, deep, rich brown earth, and clouds in the sky. It's a dramatic, lovely combination:

Syrah terraces and dramatic clouds

Equally impressive have been the sunsets, with the low autumn light warming the fall foliage:

Autumn colors and bright sky

On clearer days, the low sun angles highlight the changing colors, as in this shot that includes both head-trained and trellised Mourvedre blocks:

Autumn colors in Mourvedre

The sunrises have been equally impressive:

Sunrise in Haas Vineyard

The rain, minimal though it's been so far, has been enough to change the color of the soil. That's particularly evident in the sections that we've prepped and seeded with our cover crop mix, like this Vermentino block:

Seeded ground in Vermentino

What makes the soil so rich? Our flock of sheep, mostly, but also the regular additions we make from our compost pile. As I drove by it this morning, it was steaming in the sun, with the contrasting colors of Roussanne and Tannat in the background:

Compost Pile steaming

The low clouds, when there's not sun peeking through, give things a wintery light despite the fall foliage. That's dramatic in this view down through our Vaccarese block: 

Vaccarese and dramatic clouds

When the sun does peek through, the contrast between the foliage and the changing skies is lovely:

Grenache Blanc on Crosshairs

I'll leave you with one more photo, a slightly different view of the same scene I started with: terraces of Syrah rising at the western edge of our property, with more vineyard and dark hills shrouded by tattered clouds behind:

Syrah terraces and dramatic clouds horizontal

This landscape might not last much longer. We're forecast for a hard freeze tonight, which will put an end to the colorful foliage and force the grapevines into dormancy. That's a good thing from a vineyard perspective, but depending on how widespread it is from low valleys to hilltops, it will mean the end of much of this color. More rain is expected next week, which should accelerate the transition to winter's green hillsides and dark brown vines.

That will be lovely too. But these last few weeks have been special.


Hugelkultur in a Vineyard: A Permaculture Experiment

By Jordan Lonborg

One of the best parts of working at Tablas Creek Vineyard is that any idea that pertains to organic, biodynamic, or regenerative agriculture is on the table for discussion. During a harvest lunch, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm spoke with Winemaker Neil Collins about a hugelkultur project he’d started at his home, and the wheels started to spin. I had no clue what this term meant or where it came from. It was easy to find out about, though! The concepts of all forms of permaculture are fascinating and fit into Tablas Creek's recipe book quite nicely, using nature to enhance nature.

Hugelkultur (a German term that loosely translates to English as “mound culture”) is a form of permaculture developed in the late ’70 s by a few Austrian horticulturists. Essentially, hugelkultur is a form of a compost pile that uses wood logs as the base of the pile. The logs are then covered by smaller wooden materials (leaves, straw, prunings, etc.), compost, and a last layer of soil to cover the mound. This then breaks down over time, producing a massive mycorrhizal fungal mat (inter-connected fungi that have the capability of breaking down organic matter and creating a symbiotic relationship with living plant roots acting as a conduit for nutrient cycling) that provides nutrients and moisture to any plants on or near the area.

This form of permaculture is typically used for raised bed landscaping and/or vegetable gardening. We wanted to implement this method between grapevine rows. As we started to discuss where and how we could implement this at Tablas, Neil decided that these beds belong in our wagon wheel planting of Counoise:

Aerial view of the lowest lying point at Tablas Creek Vineyard

This location seemed perfect for many reasons. First, the block is a showcase planting based on biodynamic principles, with the rays of the planting shape acting as vectors to help beneficial insects move throughout the block. Hugelkultur should facilitate this. Second, from the start, our idea was to set this block up as a no-till, dry-farmed planting to see, on a reasonable scale, if no-till dry farming was possible in our dry, hot Paso Robles Adelaida District climate. Because we aren’t planning to till this block, the hugelkultur can sit undisturbed. And third, this block is at one of the lowest points of the vineyard, surrounded by hills. Any water that runs off these hills ends up here. Hugelkultur, like any composting system, requires moisture.

We decided to develop sunken hugelkultur beds on either side of a grapevine row. Since the vineyard block is already planted, we couldn’t start at surface level. But these sunken beds have the added advantage of allowing us to capture runoff while providing moisture to the Hugelkutur.

We used a mini-excavator to dig a 3’-4’ trench on either side of a grapevine row. Our first sign that we’d made a good choice: even after a very long, dry, and hot growing season, there was a lot of moisture still trapped in the ground at the bottom of our trench.

Inside a hugelkultur ditch at Tablas Creek

Next, we filled 2’ of depth along the entire length of the trenches with oak logs. We followed with a layer of young compost (just started during harvest this year) made up of grape skins, pumice, rachis, grapevine prunings, oak wood chips, leaves, and hay. Then, we added a layer of finished compost made during last year’s harvest. Next, we pumped grey water, recaptured from the winery drains and can be pumped into a water truck, into the trenches to moisturize the hugelkultur. Finally, we covered the trenches with the material we removed when digging them.

Aerial view of the wagonwheel block at Tablas Creek

In the next month or so, we’ll broadcast some cover crop seed and/or a beneficial seed mix blend to cap this process off. We’ll be looking for signs that the nearby rows show better health and vigor than the rest of the block. If the project is successful and we see positive signs in our grapevines, we will continue the trenching, creating two more hugelkultur rows annually.

Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. The fact that there was still a lot of moisture in the soil after a brutally hot summer provides some hope. We will keep you posted.

Hugelkultur graphic - credit vegogardenSource: https://vegogarden.com/blogs/academy/how-to-fill-raised-garden-beds-and-save-money


Harvest 2022 Recap: We Emerge Cautiously Optimistic

On Friday, with the bin of Counoise pictured below, we completed the 2022 harvest. The combination of our earliest-ever start and a (roughly average) 51-day duration meant that we tied with 2013 for our second-earliest-ever finish, with only the frost impacted 2001 vintage finishing earlier. Our rock star harvest crew deserved to celebrate, as they powered through our busiest-ever week on their way to a 9% increased amount of fruit compared to 2021 in a harvest that was five days shorter:

Last Bin of Harvest 2022 - Cropped
2022 will likely always be defined by the ten-day heat wave that began on August 31st. You can see it clearly in this graph of high temperatures by day, as well as the cool stretch that followed, culminating in our unusual September rainstorm September 18th-19th:

Daily High Temperatures 2022 vs Average - Revised

We were already harvesting before that heat wave hit, thanks to warm early-August weather and relatively light crop levels, but that definitely kicked it into high gear. It's remarkable (though hardly surprising) how closely the harvest by week tracks the temperatures, most notably in our busiest-ever week of over 130 tons between September 4th and 10th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

2022 Harvest by Week

Because of the heat-induced sprint in early September, this seems to me to be the kind of year which will separate the wineries with a secure source of labor from those without. When you get an extreme event (typically heat or rain) it impacts an entire region. All the growers and wineries, faced with needing to pick at an increased pace, are competing for the same finite number of field crew. If you can't get the crew, you can't pick. Sugars can spike, acids can tumble, and the cells of grape skins can start to break down, opening the door for insect damage or rot. But we've given our core field crew year-round employment since 1996, which means that we're able to keep up with what's going on in the vineyard. Sure, it's more hours of overtime and more expense. But it's within your control. That's why it's the challenging vintages that shows the true quality of a winery's team. In a year like 2021, everyone should make great wine. That won't be the case this year. But I feel good about our prospects.

Yields were down 8.2% overall off the estate vs. 2021, and averaged 2.37 tons/acre. That's the lowest that we've seen this century except for the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years 2009 and 2001. And yet that number could have been worse. Like 2009, we had the twin impacts of drought and frost. But the most serious frost, which came late on May 11th, was localized in an 11-acre section of the vineyard we call Nipple Flat. I'd estimate that this one below-freezing night cost us three-quarters of our production from that section, which includes our largest block of Roussanne and additional sections of Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Vermentino. Lo and behold, those were the grapes that were seriously down:

Grape 2022 Yields (tons) 2021 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2021
Viognier 11.9 11.9 none
Marsanne 8.3 7.6 +9.2%
Grenache Blanc 14.2 23.4 -39.3%
Picpoul Blanc 4.2 5.2 -19.2%
Vermentino 8.7 11.4 -23.7%
Roussanne 10.5 28.1 -62.6%
Other whites 10.0 8.3 +20.5%
Total Whites 67.8 95.9 -29.3%
Grenache 52.5 54.7 -4.0%
Syrah 39.9 37.6 +6.1%
Mourvedre 42.9 44.4 -3.4%
Tannat 13.5 11.1 +21.6%
Counoise 14.4 12.5 +15.2%
Other reds 11.8 8.4 +40.5%
Total Reds 175.0 168.7 +3.7%
Total 242.8 264.6  -8.2%

Complicating year-over-year calculations is our decision to start regenerating some of our weaker blocks by pulling out the vines and building up the soils before planned replanting this winter. Last year, we pulled out vines in two areas,. each about three acres: a block of Mourvedre down on Nipple Flat (which turned out to be good timing, since it would have gotten clobbered by frost anyway) and our second-largest block of Roussanne at the north-east edge of the property (which turned out to be a bummer, since our largest Roussanne block was on Nipple Flat). So we have about six fewer acres in production in 2022 than we did in 2021. All this means that the yields picture looks better that it might appear, as despite our third drought year in a row, the non-frozen sections of the vineyard generally saw yields slightly above what we saw in 2021. That's evidence that the early rain that we got last winter, and the work we've been doing with our flock of sheep to build up our soils' water-holding capacity, helped give the vines the reserves they needed to withstand the stresses of the August and September heat. It also bodes well for quality. 

Help is on the way. In the last couple of years we've planted nearly 30 new acres, including blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, and Clairette Blanche. Much of that is on Jewel Ridge and based on the quality of the first tiny picks we did off those blocks this year seems likely to be the gem its name suggests. And this and next winter we have plans to plant an additional dozen or so acres of Picpoul, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Roussanne. I'll share more news on that as it happens. It does mean that for the second year in a row our choices in blending are surely going to be constrained. I'm particularly concerned with what we're going to do with the Esprit de Tablas Blanc from this vintage; the wine has never been less than 45% Roussanne, and even if we assume all the Roussanne we harvested is good enough to go into the Esprit Blanc, which isn't a guarantee, that would cap our production of that wine at 1,500 cases, which isn't really enough for the many things we use it for. So, we'll have a challenge on our hands at blending time. The low quantities also preclude us having enough of any single white grape to do a varietal wine in the quantities we'd need to send it out to our 8000 VINsider Classic Club members. But I have faith that we'll figure out something fun and creative to do. Stay tuned on that too.

We had 115 harvest lots, an increase of five vs. 2021. These included three fewer estate lots (82 instead of 85) and eight more Patelin lots (33 instead of 25). That will be a silver lining to this harvest: we were able to source some great, new vineyards for Patelin, and our quantities of these wines should be assured. In fact, we were able to get enough Patelin that our overall quantity of fruit that we processed this year is up about 9% vs. 2021. In the photo below, the estate lots are in yellow, while the purchased lots are purple on our completed harvest chalkboard:

Finished Harvest Chalkboard

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

While 2022's sugar numbers are very similar to 2021's, we saw lower acids due to the heat and drought. The result were numbers remarkably like 2016, which was culmination of the five-year 2012-2016 drought in California. The 2016 vintage was an outstanding one in terms of quality, so that's good. But eventually, we really do need some rain. Fingers crossed for this winter. 

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and the first thing he mentioned was the pace: "It was an insanely hectic month which beat us all up. I think we scared the interns a bit." But he's happy with what he's seen in the reds so far: "The Pinots and Syrahs are tasting super. Not massive, but complex, with good depth of color." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take on the whites: "they feel a little more luscious because of the high-pH year. They're sultry, I think." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2022 even better in coming weeks.

Now that we're done picking, it can rain any time, though there's nothing in the immediate forecast. We've already returned our flock of sheep to the vineyard, where they're eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure. This should give the soil's microbial activity a boost as soon as it rains:

Sheep reentered into the vineyard

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. And we're going through the white barrels one by one and making sure that they're topped off. A little head space is necessary when it's bubbling away actively, but once fermentation slows down we need to make sure each barrel is full: 

Chelsea topping barrels

After the challenges of the growing season, we're grateful for the return of a slower pace. And we're excited that it looks like quality will be good. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "Everything is tasting really beautiful. I just wish there was more."


The vineyard and harvest impacts -- positive and negative -- of our unusual September rain

It's definitely been a month with interesting weather. Just three weeks ago I was writing a blog Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave. And that heat wave was intense, with ten days in a row over 100°F, though we feel like we escaped the worst impacts that were felt in some of the regions to our north. Now, a week after that heat wave broke, we got our first real rain of the 2022-23 winter, and not from some tropical monsoonal moisture that just wandered a little far north, as we sometimes see in late summer here. No, we got a real winter storm plunging out of the Gulf of Alaska, bringing significant rain to the northern two-thirds of California:

While harvest rain is rare here in Paso Robles, it's not unheard of. In the last two decades, the only other year we received September rain was in 2010, but we got rain before the end of October in 2004, 2006, 2021, and most notably 2009, when we received nearly ten inches on October 13th. And it's more common in other wine-growing regions around the world; Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has harvest rain most years, as September and October are the two rainiest months of the year. Walking around the vineyard this morning shows a very non-Californian scene, with mist in the air and droplets of water on the leaves and clusters of the vines that still have fruit. Check out Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right):

Mourvedre cluster after the rain Counoise cluster after the rain

It's not like we got an ocean of rain; we got about a half inch overnight, with potentially another quarter-inch coming today. But the whole experience is rare enough that we've been getting tons of questions about what we expect, and we assembled this morning to discuss what's likely to happen. So I thought it might be helpful if I broke down our risks.

  • Dilution. When grapevines get rain late in the growing season, some of that water is pumped into the berries. That reduces both the percentage of sugar and the percentage of acid in the grapes, at least temporarily. As long as you get dry, warm weather after, that dilution is usually short-lived. And given how dry the summer has been, it's not always a bad thing. If you were following us during the heat wave, you know that we pre-emptively gave some water to our most heat-sensitive blocks, figuring that the minor amount of dilution, if it happened, was better than the alternative of having the vines shut down or even pull water out of the berries, creating hard, unripe raisins. Risk of this being an issue: low.
  • Rot. Fungus thrives in moisture. Luckily, most of the time during the growing season here, moisture is in short supply. But when it rains it offers any available rot spores a chance to grow and spread. Key to whether or not this happens is what comes after the rain. If it turns dry and you get a breeze, the moisture on the clusters is gone before any rot has a chance to take hold. If not, and particularly if it gets warm and stays humid, things can go south in a hurry. Looking at the forecast suggests that while today will remain cool, overcast, and showery, tomorrow and especially Wednesday look clear, dry, and breezy. That's good. On the flip side, the clusters and berries have already taken some damage from the heat, and are starting to soften, offering more opportunities for rot spores to get inside the grapes than you'd normally see this time of year. Risk of this being an issue: moderate.
  • Lack of access. Finally, an issue with wet weather is that it makes it difficult and messy to get tractors into the vineyard. Most times of year that's just an inconvenience; if you can't get into the vineyard to prune, or spread compost, or weed, it's usually not a big deal to wait a few days or even a few weeks. But during harvest, access is more important as grape chemistry can change on a daily basis, and if you can't get into the vineyard to pick you run the risk of missing your window. Mitigating this likelihood is that the grapes don't ripen particularly fast in this weather, and the roughly half-inch of rain isn't enough to saturate the deeper layers of the soil. A few days of dry, breezy weather and this won't be a problem. Risk of this being an issue: low.

 The impacts of the rain aren't all negative. In fact, there are some real positives. They include:

  • Helping the harvested vineyard blocks store energy for dormancy. While we do have some worries about the fruit still hanging, the impact of this rain on the two-thirds of the vineyard that has already been picked is nothing but positive. Those vines have expended a lot of resources getting fruit ripe over the past five months. We still have a couple of months of photosynthesis to go before they go dormant with the first hard freeze. It's normal for us to go through after we've finished picking and give the blocks that we can irrigate a bit of water anyway, to help them continue to photosynthesize and store up resources for next year. This rain does that for us, and more broadly than we ever could. 
  • Giving the grapevines with fruit still hanging the energy to make a final push. We've often seen when we've gotten early rain that after a few days where numbers (sugar and acid concentrations) retreat due to dilution, the vines then appear to get something of a second wind and make more progress toward ripeness than they had been doing before the rain. It's probably intuitive as to why. These vines have been pushing hard, with their most limited resource being water. Giving them the water that they need helps them photosynthesize more productively, and that photosynthesis translates into ripening.  
  • Cleaning the dust off the vines, clusters, and roads. It's been a long, hot, dusty summer. We've been running water trucks from our wetland area over the vineyard roads, trying to keep the dust down so that it doesn't settle on the vines (reducing photosynthesis in the same way in would on a home solar panel) and clusters (where it ultimately ends up settling to the bottom of tanks and barrels as a part of the lees). But while it's impractical to spray off the whole vineyard, that's what this rainstorm effectively did. Hey, we'll take it.

So while the rain isn't an uncomplicated boon, neither is it an unmitigated disaster. What happens over the next few days will determine whether we dodge the risk of rot, or whether we need to redouble our efforts and get the remaining grapes off the vines as fast as we can. If we did have to pick fast, at least everything is pretty much ready. The biggest issue would be space in the cellar, and we're trying to make good use of this break to press off tanks that have reached sufficient extraction to make room for what's coming. But if we get good weather later this week, this could actually end up being a good thing. Please keep your fingers crossed for dry and breezy starting tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unexpected misty respite in what's usually a hot, dusty season. I'll leave you with two last photos so you can enjoy it, too.

Long view over Tannat after the rain

Long view after the rain


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.


Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave

So far this harvest season, the weather has been just about perfect. It's been warm (average high temp 93.5°F) but not too warm (highest high just 102.8°F, and just 48 hours over 95°F). Nights have been chilly (average low temp 54.7°F) but not too chilly (lowest low temp 47.7°F). Each warm stretch has been followed by a cool-off. You can get a sense of this by looking at the daily temperature ranges since August 1st:

Daily Temperatures August 2022

All that moderation is exactly what you want for your vines as they make that final push toward harvest. Unfortunately, it looks like we're getting something rather different starting tomorrow. A heat wave is coming, and it's a big one. The New York Times is calling it "brutal", the Washington Post is calling it "record-threatening", and the San Francisco Chronicle is calling it "dangerously hot". Here in Paso Robles, our forecast is for a string of days that might touch 110°F:

Forecast highs heat wave 2022

Many parts of California are looking at temperatures that will exceed seasonal norms by 12-14°C (22-25°F) in what is already a warm time of year. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) gives a great graphical depiction just how widespread the temperature anomaly will be across the western United States. A shout out to Daniel Swain and his blog Weather West, where I found this image, and which I consider required reading for anyone interested in California weather or climate:

Temperature Anomaly Heat Wave August 2022

A couple of mitigating factors give me some hope that we might escape the heat wave's worst effects. First, it's not quite as hot out here as in the town of Paso Robles. So if the forecast for town is 110°F, it's more likely to be 106°F or 107°F here. Those few degrees help. Second, the vineyard looks really healthy this year. That vigor is going to be put to the test in coming days, but at least we're starting from a good position. Third, it looks like the nights are supposed to cool off. Even at the height of the high pressure ridge, it looks like the town of Paso Robles is going to drop into the 60s. Out here it's usually 3-5°F cooler at night than in town. So the vines will still have a chance to refresh themselves a bit at night. And finally, it's late enough in the year that we have somewhat shorter days and longer nights than we would if it were mid-summer. The twelve hours and 57 minutes between sunrise and sunset is an hour and 38 minutes less heating time than we would have had on our longest day of the year.

On the other side of the ledger, we're in our third year of drought here in California, it's late enough in the growing season that even in a normal year we'd expect the top several feet of soil to be dry and the vines to be under high stress, and we had another heat event in July that already resulted in some losses.

However it shakes out, it's going to be a challenge, and our tools to deal with the heat are limited. The best option is to bring anything that's ready or nearly so into the cellar and get them into tanks or barrels where the outside temperature doesn't matter. Over the last two days, we've brought in nearly 47 tons of grapes, or roughly 10% of what we expect to do this entire harvest season, including these Grenache Blanc bins on our crushpad today:

Grenache Blanc on crushpad

We'll be continuing to bring in grapes through the wave, starting early in the pre-dawn hours with light towers and headlamps when it's still cool and continuing until probably only around 10am, when temperatures get high enough that we worry about the effects of oxidation on the newly harvested clusters. A big piece of what's coming in next will be Syrah, which is ready to go and looking amazing:

Syrah clusters

But there are grapes that are still a long way from being ready. Heck, there are grapes like Counoise that haven't even finished veraison. Harvesting those isn't a viable option, and it's important to remember that even with this week's push we're still only about a third of the way through harvest. So we've been doing something you rarely see after veraison and turning on our irrigation lines in our most heat-sensitive varieties, trying to give them the reserves they need to withstand the heat. I posted about this on Twitter today:

We're trying to avoid raisining, where the vines activate a self-defense mechanism by pulling the liquid out of their berries and using it to replace what they're losing to evaporation and photosynthesis. The resulting hard, sour raisins won't reinflate, costing us production. This Mourvedre cluster shows both that there are grapes still finishing veraison and a few of these premature raisins, the result of an earlier heat wave in mid-July that caused modest losses in Mourvedre:

Mourvedre cluster with raisining

Those two options are pretty much our entire toolkit, at least in the short term. And, of course, we don't even have one of those options on the 40% of our vineyard without irrigation infrastructure. In the longer term, the farming choices we make can help build the vines' resilience to heat and drought. Focusing on dry-farming builds deeper root systems, which have more reliable access to water and are less impacted by what's going on at the surface. Regenerative farming helps build the organic content of our soils, which then hold more moisture. And Biodynamics (along with the regenerative practices) produces more robust vines that have greater reserves to draw from. 

Fingers crossed, please, that it's enough.