Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog


Veraison 2021 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip between a Late August and Early September Start to Harvest

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find the vineyard transformed by veraison. From bright green pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Grenache Head Trained Veraison

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison; in fact, Viognier is largely through. Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc will come next, and Picpoul and Roussanne will bring up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that these Viognier clusters are starting to pick up:

Viognier

The 2021 growing season has continued on the somewhat later-than-normal track that started back at budbreak in late March. We've largely avoided extremes so far, as we were on the southern fringes of the big heat spike that impacted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July. Still, those late-June weeks pushed our degree days well above the month's norms. July (average high 93.4F) has been just about average, historically. The growing season so far:

Degree Days 2021 vs Average

July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. The relatively moderate conditions have kept the vineyard looking green and vibrant, and the vines making steady progress toward harvest. We didn't see any evidence of color in the vineyard until July 21st, but Syrah is moving fast now, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. This cluster is a little ahead of most (which I'd estimate at 50%), mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up:

Syrah Vertical

Mourvedre, even though it's always late to harvest, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Grenache. Although this is one of the more advanced clusters, it's probably 25% of the way through overall. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening:

Mourvedre

Grenache is the next most advanced. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Grenache Head Trained

Cinsaut is a little behind Grenache, at something like 5% of the way into veraison. Note the characteristic large, slightly ovoid berries:

Cinsaut

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

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

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat gave us just a five week interim. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2011 August 5 September 20 46
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (35 to 46 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 5th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. I asked Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg for what he was thinking about harvest and he noted the relatively light crop, which he attributed to smaller berries and clusters due likely to some combination of our dry, cold winter and some chilly weather during flowering. The light crop suggests that harvest will likely begin on the earlier end of the range above. But he was excited about the vines' health, and thought that we had everything in place for a harvest in good conditions with concentrated flavors.

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. We'll use that time in the cellar to finish bottling the last of our 2019 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2020s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So, now we wait. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Syrah veraison horizontal


A Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour

Over the last year, I've probably spent more time taking pictures in our vineyard than ever before. Part of the reason is because I'm here all the time; in pre-Covid times I would usually be on the road a week or two each month. I've barely left the county since last March. But more importantly, the pandemic has reinforced to me the value of bringing the experience of the vineyard to people wherever they are. Even as our tasting room gets back to normal (we're re-opening indoors July 2nd, if you haven't heard) the reality is that only a tiny percentage of our fans will visit us any week or month. If I can make the experience of being here tangible to people, wherever they are, that's an effort worth making.

June doesn't see the landscape change much, but the grapevines are developing quickly. The vine leaves are at peak lushness and greenness, and the berries are growing by the day. A month ago, we were just in the middle of flowering. Now the berries, on the most advanced grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache (below) are growing fast:

Grenache Clusters

A photo of Bourboulenc gives a sense of just how bushy and exuberant the vines are right now. We've since been in to shoot-thin this jungle, opening up the canopy to light and air, but the vineyard's health is evident from scenes like these:

Bourboulenc block

We've been using the mild early summer weather to get a few new insectaries established in our low-lying areas. These sections will be home to a handful of species of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects. We'll keep them blooming all summer, so the insect population can get and stay established: 

Beneficial insect planting

I took a swing through our Muscardin block. We harvested a tiny Muscardin crop last year off of the 200 vines that we grafted over in 2019, which amounted to just a single carboy (five gallons) in the cellar. We grafted another 750 vines last year. We'll get some fruit off those new grafts, and a much healthier crop off of what we grafted that first year. You can see how well the grafts have taken (below left) and the nice crop level (below right). We're excited to have enough Muscardin in 2021 to maybe even bottle.

Muscardin grafts year 3 Muscardin canopy

One initiative that we've been focused on this year has been to reduce the tillage in our trellised blocks. We don't feel we have a choice in the dry-farmed blocks, but this Syrah block is a great example of where we just mowed and baled the cover crop for our flock, but left the roots of the grasses undisturbed between the vine rows. We're expecting this to have a positive impact on both the sprouting of next year's cover crop and the microbial health in the soil, all while reducing carbon emissions.

Syrah block

Another is our estate biochar production. We've been collecting the canes, vine trunks, and fallen wood from the creekbed and have been using an old stainless steel tank as a biochar kiln. Biochar is a remarkable soil amendment, and has additional benefits in water retention, carbon sequestration, and air quality, as its production eliminates the need for burn piles:

Biochar

We're also replanting. In the photo above, you can see in the background a hillside that we pulled out three years ago because we'd lost so many vines to gophers, virus, and trunk disease. It's been sitting fallow ever since, until now. Just last week, we planted new rows of Grenache and Syrah, alternating rows because we're planning to try something new: trellising the Syrah high and vertically so that they can help shade the Grenache and keep it from being bleached by the sun. But that's for next year; these vines just went in the ground:

New plantings - Cote Maduena

Not every grape is as advanced as the Grenache in the first photo. But everything is making good progress. You can see the contrast between Syrah (below left) which we expect to harvest in early September, and Counoise (right) which likely won't come in until mid-October:

Syrah clusters

Counoise clusters

Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this quince is one of several trees with a heavy crop. The main goal of these trees is to support the different species of insects and microorganisms they attract, but we're also looking forward to the fruit that will land in the winery this fall.

Quince tree

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the new dry-farmed Cinsaut block that we planted two years ago in the site of one of our old rootstock fields. It's looking great, with clusters on many of the vines. In the background is our oldest Syrah block, which I wrote about earlier this spring because we're trying to build its vine density through layering. In between is our compost pile, and behind that our biochar prep area. This one photo encapsulates our past and our future. We're excited about both. 

New Cinsaut block


Flowering 2021: So Far, So Good As the 2021 Growing Season Kicks Off

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were looking at something of a "normal" season this year. Flowering, which began a couple of weeks ago but which has proceeded slowly, confirms that we're still tracking neither notably ahead nor behind what we'd expect, under something close to ideal conditions. Given that we're are roughly at flowering's mid-point, I thought it would be interesting to check on our main red varieties, from most advanced to least. So, starting with Grenache, the only grape on which you can see the beginnings of actual berries:

Flowering 2021 - Grenache

The Syrah is close on Grenache's heels, looking good, already showing its signature cylindrical cluster shape: 

Flowering 2021 - Syrah

The Counoise is actually a bit ahead of where I was expecting it. Often late to sprout and flower, in synch with Mourvedre, it appears a little ahead of usual this year:

Flowering 2021 - Counoise

And finally, Mourvedre, whose flower clusters are formed, but which hasn't yet started to bloom:

Flowering 2021 - Mourvedre

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear.

Flowering marks the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so provides confirmation for our assessment that 2021 has so far been something very close to an "average" year, at least compared to the past decade. Some of the data points we measure are growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize), the number of days that top 90°F, the number of days that don't get out of the 60s, and the number of frost nights. For these purposes, we measure the growing season as beginning April 1st. The first 53 days of the growing season (through yesterday) compared to the same dates in past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights < 32°F
2011 383 0 24 4
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
Average 2011-2020 480 2.9 19 1.1
2021 499 2 13 2

So, 2021 has been just a touch warmer than average, but with fewer days above 90 and fewer days that didn't make it out of the 60s than our ten-year average. Two frost nights, but only minimal damage and only in a couple of blocks. That's a pretty solid beginning.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. Cold, wet, or windy weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. It has been dry but a bit breezy over the past couple of weeks. It's too early to know if this has impacted flowering, but we're cautiously optimistic.

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

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

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom until the sometime in mid-June.

So far, so good. Full steam ahead.

Flowering 2021


A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress

When you consider a winery's environmental footprint, what do you think of? Their vineyard certifications? Whether they're using recycled materials? How well insulated their winery building is? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the largest contributors to a winery's carbon footprint1 are the source of their energy, the weight of their bottles, the production of fertilizers and other inputs that go onto the vineyard, the transportation of the bottled wine, and the cover cropping and tillage decisions the vineyard makes.⁠

This fact was driven home to me by a series of really interesting conversations about wine and sustainability over on Twitter recently which barely touched on wineries' vineyard practices. Kathleen Willcox published a great article on liquor.com titled Why Packaging Is Wine’s New Sustainability Frontier in which she highlights what a large piece of the total environmental footprint of wine comes from its packaging. The same day, Johan Reyneke, the South African winemaker whose commitment to organic and biodynamic farming has made him an example in his homeland and around the world, shared a review by Jancis Robinson, MW which praised his Sauvignon Blanc but called him out for the dissonance of using a notably heavy bottle for a wine made with such environmental sensitivity:

Reyneke's owning of the criticism and pledge to do better produced a lot of questions from other posters wondering what the relative importance of inputs like bottles, vineyard practices, winery design, and transportation each produced. In response, Jancis shared the below graphic, taken from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's 2011 assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint of CA WineThe graphic shows the huge importance of the glass bottle in a winery's overall carbon footprint, but also highlights other areas where a winery seeking to improve should look. It spurred me to go, category by category, and examine how we rate. In each case, I've estimated our own footprint compared to the "average California winery" benchmark noted in the CSWA graphic, with an explanation of how I got to my assessment. Our goal, in a perfect world, would be to get to zero, which would represent a 100% savings vs. the benchmark. It's good to have goals!

Note that these are self-assessments; we will be looking to do a third party carbon audit sometime in the next year. I'll be interested to know how my own assessments are contradicted or confirmed by the official ones. But this is at least a start. If you're interested in how I've assigned grades, I've given us an "A" if our own footprint in a particular category represents a better than 40% savings over the benchmark average. I've given us a "B" when our practices produce a savings between 15% and 40%. As it would in real life, a "C" represents an "average" performance, between a 15% savings and 15% extra footprint. A "D" represents between 15% and 40% extra footprint, while an "F" grade would be a footprint more than 40% greater than the benchmark.

In the Vineyard: Overall Grade A- (Benchmark: 34; Our use: 17; Savings: 50% vs. benchmark)

  • Bio-geochemical field emissions: B- (Benchmark: 17; our use: 13) The CSWA's footnote defines this category as "Footprint associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of natural bio-geochemical processes and impacted by local climate, soil conditions, and management practices like the application of nitrogen fertilizers." As we do not apply any nitrogen fertilizers, our impact here is likely smaller than average. We know because of our Regenerative Organic Certification audit that our soils are adding carbon content to the soil. The reduction in tillage and the resulting deeper root systems and more complicated microbial systems that we have been able to accomplish in recent years thanks to our flock of sheep likely also puts our total below average. On the negative side, sheep are themselves sources of methane, which likely mitigates some of the other positive contributions they make. I will be interested to learn the balance here when we get our formal audit. Does being carbon-negative outweigh the environmental impact of the flock's methane? I am less certain of this grade than any other in this list. Are we doing "A" work? Maybe! Is it actually a "C"? I hope not!
  • Fuel production and combustion: D+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 4) Although the sheep have allowed us to reduce tractor passes, organic farming still requires more tractor work than conventional chemical farming. We also use propane in the spring to power our frost fans, though we've been lucky that we haven't had many near-freezing spring nights in recent years. Our reduced tillage in recent years is a positive factor. But I'm guessing we're at or below average in this one category compared to the average California winery. Luckily, it's a small factor overall. 
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 4; our use: 0) About the only use of electricity in the vineyard is to power our well pumps. Given that we irrigate minimally compared to most wineries and that more than a third of our vineyard is dry-farmed, I'm guessing our power draws are well below average. But, most importantly, we expect that the installation of our fourth bank of solar panels last month will get us to 100% solar powered. So, this (and our winery power needs) should be near zero.
  • Raw materials production: A (Benchmark: 10; our use: 0) Because we've been farming organically since our inception, our carbon footprint for the production and transport of materials like fertilizer and pesticides has always been low. What's more, we have been working to eliminate one outside input after another in recent years. Our sheep have allowed us to eliminate even the application of organic fertilizers or outside compost. Our cultivation of beneficial insect habitat has reduced our need to intervene against pests to near zero. We've even been producing our own Biodynamic preps on site. I think we've basically eliminated this category of carbon input at Tablas Creek.

In the Winery: Overall Grade A (Benchmark: 15; Our use: 2; Savings: 87% vs. benchmark)

  • Fuel production and consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 1) We've moved entirely to electric-powered forklifts in the winery, which means they're fueled by our solar array. Same with our refrigeration. Really the only fuel we're using in production now is the transport of grapes to the vineyard, and with our estate vineyards located at the winery and our purchased grapes representing only about 30% of our production, I figure that our use of fuel is 80%-90% less than the California average.
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 0) The fourth bank of solar panels here, as in the vineyard, should reduce this to zero this year. I've said for a long time that if there is a natural resource that Paso Robles has in abundance, it's sun. This feels like an area in which every winery should be investing; there are good tax credits available to help with the up-front costs, and the return on the investment even without them is in the 15-year range.   
  • Other winery: C+ (Benchmark: 1; our use: 1) The CSWA footnote lists "transport of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, raw material production, refrigerant losses, and manufacturing waste treatment" in this category. We don't use much in the way of raw materials compared to the average winery (no yeasts, nutrients, etc., very few new barrels, no chemicals or additives). And our winery wastewater treatment is done using a wetland area that likely has positive carbon offsets from the water plants compared to an average winery wastewater facility. But I'm sure we have some refrigerant losses.

In our Packaging: Overall Grade B+ (Benchmark: 38; Our use: 25; Savings: 34% vs. benchmark)

  • Glass bottle: A-. (Benchmark: 29; our use: 17) I wrote a few years back about how our switch to lightweight bottles in 2009 saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass in nine years. I'm proud of the analysis that led to that choice, and also of the aesthetics of the bottle that we chose. And bottles make an enormous difference. In the CSWA's analysis, they published a graph (below) showing that the switch to a lightweight bottle would save 10% on a winery's overall carbon footprint, all by itself. That is because glass bottles are energy-intensive to produce and add significant weight to the product, which increase transportation costs later. Our bottles are also produced in America, at a factory outside Seattle. Given how many bottles are produced either in Europe, China, or Mexico, with the added costs of transport to California, I feel good about this. I also give us a little bump in our grade for this metric because we have for the last decade been selling a significant percentage (roughly a quarter most years until 2020) of our Patelin de Tablas in reusable stainless steel kegs, which Free Flow Wines (our kegging partner) estimates results in a 96% reduction in that package's CO2 footprint. So why don't we get an "A"? Even though our bottles are quite light, there are now even lighter bottles available than our 465 gram bottle. And we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all. I'm investigating that more seriously, although a move to that format would come with some significant challenges... not least that we'd be a wild outlier in terms of price; even our Patelin de Tablas would be double the price of the most expensive 3L bag-in-box at our local supermarket. But still, while there is more to do, I feel good about how we score in this, the most impactful of categories.

    CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight
  • Corrugate case box: B- (Benchmark: 6; our use: 5) We do use corrugated cardboard case boxes, and haven't really dug into this as a potential source of savings. We do, however, use entirely 12-bottle case boxes, unlike many higher-end wineries. There were a few years in the late 2000s where we switched our Esprit de Tablas tier of wines into 6-bottle cases, which essentially doubles the amount of cardboard needed per bottle. We made the decision back in 2012 to go back to all 12-bottle cases, and I'm happy we did. 
  • Other packaging: C+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 3) We don't do anything particularly unusual with other packaging. We use labels, capsules, and either corks or screwcaps. Our ratio of corks to screwcaps is probably about the industry average. At least we aren't using any synthetic corks, made from plastic in a manufacturing process. I feel like we can find some savings here with a little harder look.

Transport of Bottled Wine: Overall Grade D+ (Benchmark: 13; Our use: 16; Extra footprint: 23% of benchmark)

  • Transport of bottled wine: D+ (Benchmark: 13; our use: 16) I wish that the CSWA had broken this out in more detail. On the one hand, our lighter bottles give us savings here. On the other hand, the 65% of our production that we sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) means that a higher percentage of our wine than the industry average is shipped via UPS and FedEx. Those DTC shipments require extra cardboard in the form of sturdy pulp shippers, and are in many cases being shipped via air rather than ground. We don't feel we have a choice here given that wine is perishable and fragile, and it needs to get to our customers in good condition. But I worry about the environmental costs. We have started, for our wine club shipments, sending the wine that will go to customers east of the Rockies via truck to staging warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can be packed into shipping boxes and shipped ground. But that hasn't proven feasible for our daily shipping. I do give us some credit for eliminating styrofoam packaging more than fifteen years ago, but I think it's likely that any winery that sells two-thirds of their production direct is going to have an above-average carbon footprint from wine transport given that DTC sales made up just 10% of total sales of California wine pre-pandemic. 

Adding up my back-of-the-envelope assessments leads to a total footprint estimate of 60% of the baseline (18+1+25+16). Our lighter bottles and solar arrays account for most of that improvement.2 That's pretty good, but it's clear that we have additional work that we can be doing across our business. My biggest questions, which I hope that our audit will help answer, revolve around whether we can sequester enough carbon with better viticulture to offset a significant amount of what happens after the wine gets bottled. If we're going to get our carbon footprint really low, can we do that with our own property? Or have we made most of the improvements we can already, and will we need to look toward offsetting the carbon in a different way?

I don't know the answer to this yet, but I'm committed to finding out.

Final Grade: B+/A- (Benchmark: 100; Our use: 60; Savings: 40% vs. benchmark)

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to recognize that carbon footprint is just one measurement of care of the environment. Others, which I feel we do well on, include fostering of plant, animal, insect and microbial biodiversity; reduction of non-biodegradable waste; protection of habitat; and elimination of chemicals and toxins.
  2. If I were a winery starting fresh at looking at my carbon footprint, installing solar arrays and reducing the weight of my bottles would absolutely be my first avenues of attack. Both offer immediate returns on investment both environmentally and financially. 

Paso Robles is (Still) Insanely Beautiful

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

Green April 2021 - Tall cover crop and mustard

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

Green April 2021 - New Growth Grenache VF

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

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache C

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

Green April 2021 - Oak tree in Counoise from below

Green April 2021 - Oak tree and Counoise from above

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

Green April 2021 - New growth in Counoise

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

Green April 2021 - Straw Bale Barn

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

Green April 2021 - New growth Grenache AV

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

Green April 2021 - Long View in Grenache

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


Grapevine Layering: An Age-Old Vineyard Technique, Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrah block with layering

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

Syrah block - Layering burying

Those vines are now sprouting:

Syrah block layering new growth

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

Syrah block - latering sprouting


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

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

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

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

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

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

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

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

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

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

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

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

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


Paso Robles is Insanely Beautiful Right Now

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

IMG_7185 2

You can see how green things are getting after the foot of rain we received in late January. This view, looking under one of the walnut trees that we kept (the whole property was a dry-farmed walnut orchard when we bought it) shows it even more clearly. The stakes you see are for us to plant later this winter.

IMG_7182
The ridgetop has spectacular views on three sides, and also looks to us like some of the best vineyard land in the area. We've already planted some Mourvedre and Grenache. The whole property will be head-trained and dry-farmed, following the model that we've loved so much on our Scruffy Hill parcel.

IMG_7192 2

Almost the entire property is steep, with slopes as much as 30%. That's a bit of a challenge for farming, but nothing we haven't figured out already. This view of the east-facing slope of Jewel Ridge is representative. 

IMG_7169

The highlight of the property is a west-facing natural amphitheater. I took the panoramic photo I shared first looking straight west over that bowl, but because of the panoramic distortion it's hard to see the land's curves. This shot of Sadie halfway down the slope maybe shows it more clearly:

IMG_7184

Another perspective, looking south across the top of the bowl, gives you a different slice. You can see some of the vines we planted last year, tied to the stakes in the middle ground. We hope to get our first small crop off this parcel in 2023.

IMG_7207

As I was walking back, I caught this photo of the moon rising over the west slope of Jewel Ridge. The colors at this time of year (deep blue sky, occasional puffy white clouds, cream-colored rocks, dark brown vines, and bright yellow-green cover crop) is my favorite. 

IMG_7213

One of the appeals of the property to us was the lake that the previous owner's father created in the 1950s by damming up Las Tablas Creek. In the long term, we're exploring how we might use this water to frost protect more of the property. In the short term, it's a lovely spot, with ducks swimming on the surface: 

IMG_7219

Finally, maybe my favorite shot of the day, looking up from the creekbed toward our established vineyard, Sadie posing pastorally:

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We're excited that we've been able to start welcoming guests back to our tasting patio in the last month. If you're planning a trip to Paso Robles in the coming weeks, you're in for a treat.