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.


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:

IMG_2061
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.

IMG_8404


Harvest 2018 Recap: A Vintage Concentrated in both Time and Character

Last Thursday, we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise.  It wasn't as though there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat, or anything else. No, it was just that the grapes were ready. That made it a fitting end to the 2018 harvest, which unfolded under the best conditions I can remember in my 18 years here. No wonder our cellar crew was all smiles:

End of Harvest Lunch

Unlike many years, where the harvest comes in waves, 2018 was the harvest that never needed to hit the pause button.  From the first serious pick on September 10th, we picked nearly every day until we reached the 85% mark in mid-October. After giving ourselves a long weekend without picking to let the last few blocks finish ripening, we started right back up and picked steadily until we were done on October 25th. You can see steady workflow in the chart below.  It's not quite the classic bell curve, but it's as close as I ever remember seeing, at least on the estate side (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit):

Harvest Chart through October 28th

Yields were slightly above average, although the picture varies quite a bit depending on the variety you focus on. Grenache, for example, had one of our best years ever in terms of yields, but Roussanne was down quite a bit. Overall, our yields were off somewhat from the near-record 3.6 tons/acre we saw in the 2017 vintage that had been fueled by the previous winter's near-record rainfall. The complete picture:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Vermentino 17.9 22.2 -19.4%
Roussanne 32.6* 41.7 -21.8%
Total Whites 133.2 152.7 -12.8%
Grenache 74.3 73.1 +1.6%
Syrah 44.7 41.5 +7.7%
Mourvedre 64.4 72.9 -11.7%
Tannat 19.8 20.5 -3.4%
Counoise 16.0 18.8 -14.9%
Total Reds 219.2 226.8 -3.4%
Total 352.4  379.5 -7.1%

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there is still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses for our Vin de Paille program, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. 

Overall yields ended up at 3.32 tons per acre, about 10% above our ten-year average.  We only have two other years in our history in which we've seen yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre, which was a little surprising to me, given that this is both our target and our long-term average. But it's worth remembering that the data set includes a number of years just above 3.5 tons/acre (like 2005, 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2017 when ample rainfall combined with excellent growing conditions) as well as vintages reduced by drought to between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre (including 2003, 2004, 2013, 2014, and 2016) and those reduced by frost or shatter to levels around 2 tons per acre (2009, 2011, and 2015).  So, that suggests a narrative for 2018, which joins the 2007 and 2008 vintages in what we think of as a sweet spot: years that show evidence of solid vigor from the vineyard, likely from residual moisture and vine health from recent wet winters, but still reduced somewhat by water stress. Given that last winter was dry but not at crisis levels, and that it followed the ample rainfall in early 2017, this makes sense to me.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62

You'll note that 2018's sugars maintained the rebound we saw last year (after lower average sugars in 2015 and 2016) while the average pH declined to something close to our long-term average. Those are both good signs: that the vines were healthy enough to achieve the sugar concentrations we wanted while maintaining their acids later in the season.  The decline in pH from 3.74 to 3.62 might not seem like much, but remember that pH is a logarithmic scale, so this year's grapes contained nearly 32% more acid than last year's.  We're excited about that, and feel that the better acids are a sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vines were under at harvest time.

Looking back at the degree days that we measured this 2018 growing season provides confirmation for what we felt on the ground: most of the year has been moderate to slightly cool, except for the scorching 6-week stretch between the second week of July and the middle of August. July was our hottest month ever, and August warmer than normal thanks to the first half of the month, but the rest of the year was not. So, while the overall picture suggests a warm year, with about 7% more degree days than average, it's important to remember when and how the heat came, and just as importantly, when it didn't. The chart below shows the cooler spring (1% fewer degree days than normal) and harvest (1.5% fewer degree days than normal) surrounding the hot mid-summer (20% more degree days than average). Note that October's information is for the first 25 days, as we picked our last block on October 25th:

2018 Degree Days by Month

We picked 115 lots this year, with one more (the Roussanne that's a part of the Vin de Paille) still to come.  And we had just enough space on our harvest chalkboard!

Completed Harvest Chalkboard 2018

The duration of harvest -- 55 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium, and one day longer than 2017. But that raw number too is deceptive, given that the first 10 days of harvest saw us bring in just 10 tons of grapes. The next 45 days saw the remaining 527 tons, so it felt like a shorter, more compact harvest than 2017. If we consider September 10th our first "real" harvest day, that puts the duration at our second-shortest of the last 15 years, longer only than the 2013 vintage that was conducted almost entirely in temperatures around 90 degrees and which finished on October 7th.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage based on her tastings, and her response was, "I think it's going to be a really strong year for reds; the Mourvedre and Counoise are coloring up fast, which is usually an indicator of a good vintage, and the flavors are powerful and deep. And the whites are insanely aromatic and floral."  Given that Chelsea has been running on 60-hour weeks for the last two months, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2018 is to make our first Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Roussanne clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 38° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Roussanne we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation next week. 

Roussanne on the straw

Although harvest is over, there's still plenty of work to do in the cellar; because we were harvesting pretty steadily up until the end, we have plenty of tanks still fermenting and on their skins. It's important to remember, should you see a winemaker emerging from his or her work-imposed exile in the next few weeks, that November is still a busy month for cellar work. Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver got a great shot of a Grenache tank she was digging out late last week. Automated, this is not.

Amanda digging out Grenache

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast until the second week of November, and even that's uncertain. But whenever it comes, we'll be ready. And as for those "harvest hands"? December can't come soon enough.

Harvest Hand


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


Harvest 2018 at its mid-point: moderate to good yields and outstanding quality under ideal weather conditions

After two intense weeks, the cellar is pretty much full and we're in a bit of a lull. The early grapes (think Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir) are done or largely done, and while we've made a start with the mid-season grapes like Grenache and Tannat, there's still more out on the vines than there is in the cellar. Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are still a few weeks off. This ebb and flow is a good chance to let a few fermentations finish in what is a very full cellar: 

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The weather has been absolutely ideal, a bit cooler than normal, but with a few short warm-ups mixed in to give the grapes periodic nudges toward ripeness. And even during those warm stretches, the nights have been quite chilly, leading to some remarkable diurnal temperature swings. From the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather stations this past Wednesday:

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The 48.5° swing that we saw at Tablas Creek was one of the smaller ones in the area. The Templeton Gap's swing was 57.8°, while the Adelaida West station, just a few miles away from us, was 62.3°.  That's remarkable, even here in Paso Robles where massive diurnal swings are commonplace. But it meant that even when it was hot, it was only hot for a few hours, with the vast majority of the day in the 85°-95° range which is ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. 

With the first handful of varieties harvested, we have the first chance to wrap our heads around yields.  It looks like yields are down from 2017, but still above the levels we saw during our drought. The varieties we've finished harvesting are down a total of 12.8%. Given that 2017 was up 21.8% over 2016's more or less average yields, we still seem like we're in good shape. The details on the grapes we've finished with:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.9 14.4 -23.8%
Marsanne 13.8 11.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 33.7 -27.4%
Vermentino 22.2 21.7 -2.3%
Syrah 41.5 42.6 +2.7%
Pinot Noir 8.7 7.9 -9.2%
Total so Far 151.5 132.1 -12.8%

In terms of timing, as September moves into October, we're still about two weeks behind what we have grown used to in the 2012-2017 run, and haven't picked up any significant ground since the beginning of harvest. We picked Syrah this year between September 14th and 25th.  Last year, it came in between August 31st and September 20th. The 2018 Viognier came in between August 31st and September 20th. In 2017, its range was August 30th to September 4th. By the end of September last year, we'd picked 90% of our Grenache. This year, we're only 24 tons in, or about a third of what we expect to harvest.  I'd give us less than a 50/50 chance of being done by the end of October this year. That's not particularly scary; in the 2000's we harvested into November more than half the vintages. But it's been a while. 

The quality has been outstanding so far: terrific flavors and ideal numbers from fruit that has looked like it could have come of the table at our local farmers' market. And the fermentations have smelled wonderful. We've been wishing for scratch-and-sniff Internet, so we can share more than just how nice fermentations (like the Pinot Noir pictured below) look:

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Looking forward, we expect to see a lot of Grenache and Tannat the next week or two, and we'll likely start cherry-picking Roussanne and Mourvedre, to get the ripest clusters into the cellar so they don't raisin while we wait for the majority of the fruit to reach maturity. Scenes like Saturday morning's, where Tannat bins spill from the crushpad onto our staff parking lot, will be commonplace:

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There is a little uncertainty in next week's forecast; the interaction between a Pacific low pressure system and the remnants of Hurricane Rosa will likely cause some showers on Wednesday.  But with the forecast predicted to warm up and dry out after, that's not a big deal.  At worst, we may not pick for a couple of days.  But if you're in the desert Southwest, this is something to prepare for:

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the beautiful fermentation aromas in the cellar, and the colors of the grapes on the vines. And hope that the second half of harvest continues under equally good conditions as we've seen for the first half.