Taking One Last Look at the Winter of 2018-19

Yesterday, as we were setting up for the filming of a video to celebrate our 30th Anniversary, we were interrupted by a brief but noisy downpour. The rain went as quickly as it came, but it's a sign of the season that my first thought was not about the vines, but instead that the rain (which totaled less than 1/10th of an inch) would be great for keeping the dust down at the baseball field for the youth team I'm coaching.

The rain really did feel like a last gasp of winter, and the warm sun that followed was in keeping with what we've seen most of the last three weeks. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is the last rain we see until November. Nearly the entire vineyard has sprouted into budbreak, and we're doing our best to tame the incredible growth of the cover crop:

New Growth April 2019

As we enter this transitional season, it seems a good time to look back at the winter of 2018-19 and try to put it into context. First, rainfall. The bulk of what we received this winter came (as usual) in January and February, but early March was quite wet too, and we saw greater-than-normal rainfall four of the five main rainy months:

Winter Rainfall Graph 2018-19

In total, we have accumulated 30.79" of rain since last July. That's roughly 123% of what we would expect as an average annual total, and given that we still have more than two months (albeit not normally rainy months) before the rain year concludes, we're at about 131% of what we'd expect by this time. We're thrilled. Our wells are full, the soil was fully saturated but is drying out enough that we can begin to get into it, and the cover crops are as tall, dense, and healthy as we've ever seen. The photo below, of our winemaker Neil in a head-trained Counoise block, shows a block that was already grazed down by our flock once this winter. All the growth you see has come in the last 10 weeks, and the vines themselves are totally obscured:

Neil lost in the cover crop April 2019

As for temperature, we've seen the ideal transition from winter chill to spring warmth. Freezing temperatures are fine (even desirable) when the vines are dormant, but will kill any new growth once it has sprouted. So, in an ideal year, we'd love to see regular frosty nights through mid-March, and then once it warms up, to not see it drop below freezing again until after harvest. That's what has happened so far this spring. We saw the last of our 29 below freezing nights on March 14th. The next day saw our first above-70 day in more than a month. Since that, we've had lots of sun, an average high temperature of 69, and an average low of 40, without a single frost. That's perfect. We've still got another three weeks before we stop worrying about frost, but given that the long-term forecast is for a warming trend, at least the first half of that period looks good. Fingers crossed, please.

Now, our job is to incorporate all the organic matter that the cover crop has provided into the soil, so it can break down and provide nutrients for the vines. We've been mowing to start this process and allow for good drainage of air, which has produced a pretty striped look to the vineyard landscape:

Striated Vineyard April 2019

It's a big task to mow then disk 120-plus acres. But barring an unexpected storm, the work should go quickly, and in another month, this scene will be gone, with the warm brown earth newly visible, the vines' competition for water eliminated, and the stage set for the growing season. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying our own local super bloom:

CA Poppies April 2019

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you're coming for a visit in the next month or so, you're in for a treat.


Budbreak 2019: We Celebrate a Late Beginning after a Wet, Chilly Winter

This winter has been wonderful. We've accumulated nearly 31 inches of rain, without a single storm that caused us damage, flooding, or even any notable erosion, thanks to an amazing 62 days with measurable precipitation. The green of the cover crops is mind-bending. And it's been chilly enough that the vines have been kept dormant. Our weather station at the vineyard has recorded 29 below-freezing nights, and we've had weeks at a time where the days have been cold too: we had a 39-day stretch between January 31st and March 10th where it rose into the 60s just three times, including several days that topped out in the 40s. That's unusual. But the net result has been that we've been largely free of the worries of recent years that the vines might sprout prematurely, leaving them susceptible to damage from a late frost. 

The last two weeks have felt different. Our last below-freezing night was March 14th. Since March 15th, we've seen six days reach the 70s, surpassing the total between December 1st and March 14th. The lengthening days and the warm sun have produced a wildflower bloom that's getting national media attention. And the vines have begun to wake up:

Grenache Budbreak Silhouette

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

Budreak in Viognier

This year is later than many years this decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:

2018: Late March
2017: Mid-March
2016: Very end of February
2015: Second week of March
2014: Mid-March
2013: First week of April
2012: Mid-April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April

It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. It will be at least another couple of weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Mourvedre or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

No budbreak in Mourvedre

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are cued by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis, while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Bud break varies with the winter. Because wet soils retain cold better than warm soils, winters that are both wet and cold tend to see the latest emergence from dormancy. The consistent cold and wet we received in the winter of 2018-2019 meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk.  And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and 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. 

But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the middle of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. We've been fortunate that the recent storms we've received have largely been warm ones, without frost, and that the extended forecast doesn't seem to contain anything particularly threatening. 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 2019 vintage.

Budbreak Closeup in Grenache


Spring Equinox Update: Paso Robles is Still Absurdly Beautiful

About two months ago, I posted a blog Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now, sharing some photos I'd taken in the newly-green vineyard, ground fog wending its way around vines, solar panels, and olive trees. Fast-forward two months, and we're seeing the lovely consequences of combination of the last two weeks of sun and the nearly 30 inches of rain that we've received. The result has been a vineyard as green as I can ever remember, set off against impossibly blue skies and the dark brown of the still-dormant grapevines. To wit:

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Square

Although we'd had two dry weeks before today's half-inch of rain, there is water everywhere, seeping out of hillsides and running merrily in Las Tablas Creek. You can see a puddle sitting in the swale between the east-facing Vermentino vines (foreground) and the west-facing Mourvedre vines (behind the frost fans).

Tablas Creek Crosshairs Block

The vines themselves are still dormant thanks to a series of below-freezing nights, although the warmth of the sun suggests that we'll see bud-break before too long. In fact, this was the week last year when we first saw leaves. I don't expect that this year -- it has been colder, and all the water in the soil is keeping soil temperatures down -- but early April seems like a pretty safe bet. So, views like this, with a bare Counoise trunk silhouetted against the blue sky, will be short-lived:

Head-trained Counoise vine at Tablas Creek

The dormant trunks make amazing patterns in the vineyard, like the Mourvedre cordons below:

Tablas Creek Mourvedre Cordons

Still, as impressive as the green grass is, it's the sky at this time of year that always steals the show for me. Here's a view looking up toward our tallest hill, over Counoise and Grenache blocks. You can see the still-unpruned Grenache in the foreground; we wait longest to prune this, our most frost-prone grape:

Tablas Creek looking up toward highest hill

I'll leave you with one last view of the vineyard contours, looking up the same hill of Vermentino in the first two photos. The sweep of the land comes through, I hope. 

Tablas Creek Newly Pruned Vineyard Horizontal

Up next, we hope: what should be a spectacular wildflower season. The superbloom is in full swing just a little to the south of us. As the days continue to lengthen, and the sun warms, we should see an explosion of color here too. And when we do, I promise we'll share.


A Grapevine Pruning Tutorial with Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena

After four relatively quiet months, March is go time in the vineyard. The days start to get longer, the cover crops and wildflowers explode into growth thanks to the sun and rain, and it starts to feel like spring is just around the corner.  Of course, it's not, quite; it's still often below freezing at night, and with the cold weather we've seen this year, the grapevines shouldn't sprout for at least another few weeks. But all of a sudden you know the clock is ticking.

Normally, we'd prune starting in January. And we did get a bit of a start this year.  But it's been wet enough that there were lots of days where we couldn't get into the vineyard, and pruning in the rain is an invitation to fungal infections and trunk diseases. That means we're behind where we'd normally be. You can't prune too early, because you need to wait until the vines are dormant so that they can store up the necessary vigor in their roots. And pruning too early encourages the vines to sprout early too, and in an area prone to spring frosts -- like Paso Robles -- that's a risk.  So, rather than prune in December, we typically do the bulk of our pruning in February and March, starting with the varieties that sprout late, and which we're not too worried about freezing, like Mourvedre and Roussanne.  We try to finish with Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, which all tend to sprout earlier, in the hopes of getting another week or ten days of dormancy out of them. 

Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg and Vineyard Manager David Maduena took 90 seconds to explain what they aim for in their pruning, and then demonstrate:

Pruning at Tablas Creek Vineyard from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

All this is done by hand.  We have about 115 acres that need to be pruned.  80 of these acres are trellised like the ones in the video, at roughly 1800 vines per acre.  The other 35 acres are head-trained, at much lower density, between 350 and 600 vines per acre.  That's more than 160,000 vines to prune.  At 20-25 seconds each, that's slightly more than 1,000 man-hours of work.  Figure that we typically have 8 of our full-time crew working on pruning in this season, with an hour of breaks each day makes 146 days of work... or with a crew of 8, just over 18 work days each.  That sounds about right... roughly a month of work, if the weather holds.

Why does all this matter? Pruning our vines well has several positive effects:

  • It reduces yields and improves quality.  As a rough estimate, you can figure on one cluster of grapes per bud that you leave during pruning.  Leaving six spurs each with two buds predicts roughly a dozen clusters of fruit, which should give us about the three tons per acre we feel is ideal for our setting and our style.
  • It makes for a healthier growing season.  If we space the buds correctly, we should have good vertical growth of canes and have clusters of fruit hanging below the canopy.  This configuration means that air flow through the rows should naturally minimize mildew pressure.  It will also shade the fruit from the sun at the hottest times of day, while allowing any nutrients or minerals we spray onto the vineyard to penetrate the canopy.
  • It promotes even ripening.  Different vines in any vineyard block have different base levels of vigor.  If left to their own devices, some might set a dozen clusters while others might set thirty.  Of course, the more clusters, the slower they ripen.  Getting an even cluster count helps minimize the spread between first and last fruit ripe in a block and makes the job of the picking crew much easier.
  • It sets up the vine for the following year.  Done well, pruning encourages the growth of wood in places where it will be needed in future years, filling in gaps where cordons may have died back in previous years or separating spur positions that have grown too close.
  • It saves labor later.  A good example of how much labor good pruning saves can be found by looking at a frost vintage, where the primary buds have been frozen and secondary buds left to sprout wherever the vine chooses.

We estimate that we're about 70% done with our annual pruning work. This week is supposed to be sunny, and if that holds, by the end of the week we should be largely done. And then we have another little break where we wait for budbreak and get to start worrying about frost. As I said a few years back, springtime is terrifying... but hopeful

Pruning shears at Tablas Creek


Assessing the Lovely Rainy Chilly 2018-2019 Winter So Far

OK, I may have given my feelings away in the title of this blog. So far, this winter has been wonderful. We got four inches of rain in November to kick things off (a total topped only three times in the 23 years we've had our weather station going). This got the cover crop growing and began the process of incorporating the compost we'd spread around the vineyard into the soil. A chilly but sunny December ensured that the vines were fully dormant and the cover crop well established, and then our rainy January (9+ inches) and February (10+ inches and counting) brought us to where we are now: a year where as of February 25th we've already reached our annual winter rainfall average, and are about 130% of where we'd expect to be in a normal year.

Tablas Creek rainfall by month winter 2018-19

Oh, and the vineyard looks like this:

Green Tablas Creek Vineyard February 2019

For the winter, we've already reached the 25 inches that is our long-term average, thanks mostly to the last two months. And there is more rain in the forecast; if we finish the year at the same 130% of normal that we are to date, that would put us at 32.5 inches, not quite at the heights we achieved before the 1998, 2005, 2010, 2011, and 2017 vintages, but close:

Tablas Creek Rainfall by Year 1996-2019

There is water seeping out of hillsides and flowing merrily in Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard dogs have been returning from their romps exhausted and muddy:

Las Tablas Creek

You may have to be Californian (or at least to have lived here for a while, and through our recent drought) to understand how exciting the sound of running water is. Our Shepherd even made a video for those who want to savor it: 

So, on the water front, so far, so good. How about on the temperature front? Regular readers of the blog know that below-freezing nights aren't unusual in Paso Robles in the wintertime, but we've seen an unusual concentration recently. After only one frost night in November, we got four in December, five (including four consecutive nights in the mid-20s) in January, and a whopping fifteen so far in February, including the last eight. While rainy months and frosty months aren't unusual here, months that are both rainy and frosty are, because typically it only freezes when it's clear enough for radiational cooling to take place. Unusually this month, we've had cloudy nights below freezing, culminating in a rare snowy afternoon here last week:

What does all this mean for the 2019 vintage? It's early to say. But there have been years where late February already felt like spring, with our local almond trees in bloom and us starting to worry about bud break. For the grapevines, the two most important factors that they sense and which together cue them to come out of dormancy are the amount of the daytime sunlight (less this year because of all the clouds) and the soil temperature (well below average due to the constant rainfall and the cold nights and days). So, I would predict that we'll see a later beginning to the growing season than in recent years, and likely later even than last year's late-March bud-break, which was itself a bit of a throwback to the 2000's. That would be great; the benefit of a later budbreak is that we have fewer white-knuckle nights where we have to worry about frost, since by mid-May we are past that worry. If we can push budbreak back into April, so much the better.

So, while this winter has produced more Californian grumbling about the cold and rain than I remember hearing before, we'll take it. The vineyard is in great shape, and the vines still fully dormant. The persistent rain has meant an incredibly green cover crop with plenty of food for our flock. And the fast-moving weather systems have given us rainbow after rainbow. We ❤ you, winter in Paso Robles.

Rainbow over paso robles


Paso Robles is Absurdly Beautiful Right Now

Last week, we got four more inches of rain over three days, bringing our January total to 8.66 inches and our winter total to 14 inches.  We're slightly ahead of where we'd expect to be at this time of year, and what's better, it's come in surges, with sunny interludes in between that allow the ground to dry out a bit and the cover crop to grow. The net result is a landscape that is as far away from summer's stark golden brown as it's possible to imagine:

Looking down past solar panels to nursery area

I've been sharing these photos bit by bit over our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, and they've been racking up some of the highest numbers of likes I can remember, so they seem to have touched a chord, particularly with the northeastern two-thirds of the country seeing polar weather right now.

I thought it would be nice to collect some of my favorites in one place. In no particular order, starting with a look down over the low-lying area we call Nipple Flat, showing both the undulating lines of the winter vineyard and the fog that's been settling in our valleys each night:

Looking down Nipple Flat

The moisture in the air that transforms the winter landscape can be hard to imagine if you've only visited in summer, but as I've written before, our winter climate is as much rain forest as our summer is desert:

Top of New Hill

The battle waged daily between the fog lifting off the saturated ground and the sun rising makes for a landscape that changes by the minute each morning:

Row 9

That rising sun makes for some great drama in photographs, like this one of one of our 39 owl boxes, most occupied now with nesting barn owls:

Owl box and rising sun
By the time most of our visitors arrive, that fog has largely burned off, and the dramatic green of the grass and blue of the sky are the lasting impressions: 

Solar panels and Mount Mourvedre

We know that summer is the typical season when most guests visit Paso Robles Wine Country. But winter is my favorite season here. I hope that I've done it justice.


The Greening of the Vineyard

At this time of year, the landscape in Paso Robles changes fast. Within a few days of the season's first rain, you start to see hints of green under the dry grasses from the year before. The day after your first hard freeze, the grapevines lose most of their leaves as they pass into their winter dormancy. And suddenly, instead of the autumn landscape we had less than a month back, it's starting to look like winter:

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The vineyard's annual change to winter colors doesn't always happen evenly. There are still vineyard blocks (mostly at the tops of our hills) that haven't seen a hard freeze, and which combine autumn foliage with a green undercoat:

Image_123986676

For whatever reason, Syrah seems to hang onto its leaves (and their pretty fall colors) longer than any other grape. Witness this panoramic, with bare Mourvedre vines on the left of one of our vineyard roads and Syrah on the right:

Panoramic

The growth of the cover crop means that we've been able to reintroduce our animal herd into the vineyard. The areas they've grazed look brown, but remember that the manure they leave behind will just accelerate the growth of more cover crop later in the season. Our goal is to get the flock through every block twice between now and bud-break in April:

Image_123986672

We are thrilled with the early rain we've seen so far this winter. We saw our first significant storm the week before Thanksgiving, in which we picked up a little less than an inch of rain. This was followed by a more significant storm the next week, which dropped 3.12 inches over two days. That wasn't all. The next week (which brings us to last week) saw another small storm drop a half-inch, and we have another storm forecast for this coming Monday. Overall, we're at 4.85" for the winter so far, and ahead of our long-term average. Even better, it has come with sunny breaks in between, which gives the cover crop a chance to get established and reduces the threat of erosion.

I'll leave you with one more photo, maybe my favorite that I took this morning. I love the feel and look of the air in a Paso Robles winter, with moisture differentiating receding mountains and softening the sun's intensity. If you haven't visited wine country in wintertime, you're missing out.

Image_123986675


November: The Calm Before the Storms (Hopefully)

This November has been beautiful so far.  Days have remained warm and sunny, mostly in the upper 70s or lower 80s. Nights have been chilly, down into the upper 30s and lower 40s.  The vines have erupted into a riot of autumn foliage:

IMG_2053

We're enjoying this weather in part because we know it could end at any time. Typically, we get our first real rain in the second half of November. That puts an end to the fall colors, and begins our transition into winter green. And we'd be thrilled whenever it starts to rain. But instead we're getting weather that feels more like October than November, except with longer, chillier nights. We're using the time in a couple of ways. First, we're carving furrows into the rows, breaking up the soil so that it's more able to accept that rain when it does arrive:

IMG_2105

Second, we're seeding the vineyard with our custom cover crop blend, a mix of vetch, peas, beans, radish, cabbage, and rye. We'll be putting over 1000 pounds of seed out in the next week or two:

IMG_8396

Third, we've been taking advantage of the warm afternoons to bring some barrels outside and encourage them to ferment a little faster. With the nights so cold, the cellar isn't getting above 60 degrees, so a little time in the sun can give the yeasts just enough of a nudge to get them finished: 

IMG_8416
November also marks the flock's reintroduction into the vineyard. To better protect against mountain lions, we've added a pair of Spanish Mastiffs to the flock. They're only a year old and still growing, but they've already bonded with the sheep. You can see Bjorn, the smaller of the pair, in the foreground of this shot, looking proprietary:

IMG_8400

The sheep have been enjoying the second-crop clusters that we left on the vines because they didn't achieve ripeness. For whatever reason, Tannat had more than its normal share this year. Although it looks perfectly ripe, even now, a month after we've finished harvesting the block, its sugars are still sitting around 15 brix. Plenty sweet enough to make good eating, but not to make great wine. So, it will make a snacking sheep happy instead:

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The long-term forecast doesn't suggest any rain in the next ten days or so, although it seems like we might see our first frost of the year by this weekend or early next week. That it can frost at night and then climb into the upper 70s the following day is still amazing to me; the idea would be inconceivable in Vermont where I grew up. Still, if there is a time of year when the landscape looks like Vermont, it's now, when the fall vineyard colors are doing their best sugar maple impression. I'll be enjoying scenes like this last one, as long as they last.

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Compost: Momma Nature’s Gift (A Step by Step Guide)

By Jordan Lonborg

Biodynamics has lots of facets, including applications of minerals, planting of flora, integration of fauna, and even reacting to celestial stimuli. But one of its most important components is one of the oldest, and one of the most practical for the home organic gardener. What is this magical tool? Compost, of course.

What, where, and how do you compost? I'm happy you asked. Essentially, when you compost, you are encouraging a natural process, and then using the beneficial byproduct of what in the wild would be a part of the yearly cycle of growth and decay that takes place in every stand of trees, every forest, and most of all, every jungle on the planet. Simply put, compost is the biodegradation, or breakdown, of plant material that falls to the ground in the form of leaves, fruit, branches etc. The second that material hits the ground, the breakdown begins. This food chain is often invisible, and frequently smelly, but without it, there is no life on this planet. Small insects and microorganisms begin to feed on the litter. As the litter is continuously broken down by various organisms -- insects that you can see with the naked eye, all the way to microscopic bacteria -- nutrient rich humus (not the cracker spread) is excreted. As the humus accumulates, beneficial bacteria and fungi begin to grow. These bacteria and fungi work in symbiosis with the root structures of living plants, allowing those plants to take in the nutrients that are contained in the humus.

Jordy compost closeupA closeup of our compost, with Mycelium, a white vegetative part of a fungus crucial for our compost teas

In a farm setting, where we try to recreate this natural process, there are many ways and forms of composting. At Tablas Creek, we utilize the process commonly known as wind row composting (long rows that are typically 7-8 ft. wide and 5-6 feet tall). When starting the pile, there are a few crucial steps/measures that need to be taken to create a biologically active environment. First and foremost is the carbon (dry, woody material) to nitrogen (“green” material or plant material that still has moisture within it such as pressed grapes or the rachis/stems of the cluster’s that had recently gone through one of the first steps in the winemaking process known as de-stemming). Ideally, this ratio should be 3:1, carbon to nitrogen. Our carbon source comes from all of the prunings collected from across the ranch. We put these through a chipper and add walnut tree wood chips from piles we kept after clearing the old walnut trees from the part of the property known as “Jewel Ridge” (this will eventually be our next dry farmed planting).

Jordy with compostHappy compost makes for a happy Viticulturist!

The carbon sources are collected and piled up throughout the winter months. During harvest is when the magic happens. As grapes are pressed and de-stemmed, we begin to incorporate the skins and rachis into the piles of woody material. The breakdown of the woody material and formation of humus begins at this point. When the green material starts to decompose, heat and moisture start to release, and microorganisms that feed on the woody material begin to feed and populate. At this point, it is crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile. The ideal internal temperature of a pile that is actively composting is 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit. When green material is incorporated into the pile in the beginning stages, decomposition of the green material can occur so quickly that temperatures within the pile can skyrocket. When a compost pile experiences prolonged temperatures of 170 degrees and above, anaerobic (oxygen deprived) conditions begin to form, which both suppresses the growth of of beneficial microorganism and allows other non-beneficial microorganisms to take their place. To prevent this from happening, we “turn” the pile.

Turning our compost pile has become what Neil Collins, Tablas Creek's most esteemed (OK, he's the only winemaker since inception), termed an “obsession” of mine. He is correct. Taking a 20” thermometer and inserting into a pile that is 8’ wide, 6’ tall, and 50 yards long, at this point in the year and reading temperatures that exceed 170-180 degrees absolutely blows my mind. Therefore, to encourage the beneficial microbiological activity within the pile, and with hopes of trying to get the temperature to stabilize at 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun is coming up I hop in the loader, and begin to move the pile, scoop by scoop to an adjacent location. This process incorporates oxygen, decreases the temperature, and disrupts and any anaerobic activity that may be beginning to occur. It’s an amazing sensation when you start getting into the heart of this pile that is creating ridiculous amounts of heat, steam, and smells during cold mornings at sunrise. The aerobic, properly composting sections of the pile smell amazing. Like earthy, mulled cider to an extent. When you hit the anaerobic areas, they also smell amazing but would be considered more of a stench than anything. I’m still working on a descriptor, but think of a hot swamp. No bueno. During this point in the year/composting process, we turn the pile every 2-3 days. In time, the temperatures begin to stabilize and the constant need to turn the pile subsides. The microorganisms that have been digesting the woody material and in turn releasing the beginning stages of humus are in full effect. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin to bloom at rapid rates. This is our happy place.  In nature, it can take many, many years for humus to even begin to form. A properly managed compost pile expedites that natural process. From last week:

Traditionally, we’ve spread the compost created on the farm throughout the vineyard and followed up with an implement known as a disc which incorporates the compost into the soil profile. But that's not the only way we use the compost. We have expanded our compost tea program: a process in which you take compost, soak it in a tank of water that is heavily oxygenated, and encourage the beneficial microorganisms to move off of the compost into solution. Next we add nutrients to the tea, and the compost's beneficial microorganisms (now in suspension in the water) begin to feed on these nutrients and extrapolate at a rapid pace. This finished tea is like a probiotic shake for a grapevine, packed with beneficial organisms, and can be injected directly into the soil profile through your drip system or applied to the vine leaves throughout the vineyard. If applied through the drip system, whatever organic matter resides in your soil profile will break down faster while foliar applications have shown to combat powdery mildew and provide nutrients to grapevines.

Composting is a necessary process that takes place on most if not all organic and biodynamic farms across the world. Yes, we could purchase organic fertilizers, but why would we want to, when composting means we reuse the waste generated on our farm, we produce a product that can be used in many ways to increase the fertility of our soil and the health of our vines, and we do it all without having to bring anything in from the outside, with all the trucking and greenhouse gas impact that implies.


Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like we won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th