The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

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The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

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And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

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We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


A massive honey harvest from our new Langstroth hives means... a great vintage?

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!

Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.

When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!

As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:

Tablas Creek Beekeeping with Jordy Lonborg from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether.  Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).

Queen BeeCheck out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!

Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them.  When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.

To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.

Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”

Fingers crossed….


A Mid-Summer Vineyard Check-In Suggests 2019 Harvest Will Be Latest Since 2011

On Friday, I joined more than a hundred other members of the Paso Robles wine community at the California Mid-State Fair's wine awards. It's always a fun celebration, and I thought that this year's honorees -- Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards for Winemaker of the Year, Paul Hoover of Still Waters Vineyards for Grape Grower of the Year, and (posthumously) Scott Welcher of Wild Horse and Opolo as Wine Industry Person of the Year -- were all highly deserving. The awards were presented by some of the icons of the local industry (Gary Eberle, Ken Volk, and Austin Hope) and the great turnout was a testament to both how well liked all the honorees are and to the work that the Mid-State Fair has done to involve the wine community in recent years.

After the awards, we stuck around with our kids and wandered the fair's Midway, ate our annual allotment of funnel cake, and called it a relatively early night because we were all freezing as soon as the sun set and the wind kicked up, particularly Sebastian, our 11-year-old who decided it would be a good idea to go on a water ride at sundown.

OK, pause for a record scratch here, to appreciate how weird it is to type freezing and fair in the same sentence. Typically, the Mid-State Fair week is scorching here in Paso Robles, and you call it a day after a few hours because you can only stand so much 100+ heat. It is, after all, the second half of July, when the average high temperature in Paso Robles is 93°F. Last July (admittedly, a hot one) saw 14 different days top 100°F and another four miss by less than a degree. But at 8:30pm on Friday, as we drove home, it was 60°F, and downright chilly with the wind even inside our newly-purchased fair sweatshirts.

We've had that experience a lot this spring and summer, and the vineyard has been thriving in the comparatively cool weather. With only one day having topped 100 so far this year, and good water in the ground from last winter's generous rainfall, you would hope that the grapevines would be looking green and healthy. And they are. I posted this video over the weekend taking a look at one of our Grenache blocks:

Zooming in, the clusters are resolutely green, at a time of year when in most years this decade I've been posting pictures of veraison. On the property here, we would expect to see veraison first in Syrah. But it doesn't feel like it's close, with some berries still showing the oval shape they do as they are growing. The clusters, though, are beautiful and relatively plentiful, which will be a nice change from most recent years where Syrah was scarce:

Syrah mid-July

White grapes do go through veraison, although it's subtle and harder to photograph. That said, even Viognier (below) shows none of the hints of yellow that it gets as it nears ripeness:

Viognier mid-July

Mourvedre isn't even full-sized yet, with the uneven look that many clusters have at this time of year, with some berries twice the size of others:

Mourvedre mid-July

Grenache is still green, but the story there isn't that as much as it is the shatter that we're seeing. Shatter happens when cold, wet, or windy weather during flowering prevents full fertilization of the flowers, and you end up with missing berries. Some grapes are more prone to it than others, and Grenache is notoriously susceptible. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as in years when there isn't any shatter we have to thin this heavy producer more rigorously. A little shatter, like we're seeing this year, actually makes our job easier:

Grenache mid-July

What does all this mean for harvest? Well, we're behind where we were last year, when we didn't really get going until the second week of September, and three or more weeks behind warmer years like 2013, 2014, and 2016. Is it possible that we're looking at a vintage more like 2010 and 2011, when we didn't get going until late September and were still picking in mid-November? I doubt it. We're forecast for a week of very warm weather starting today. That will help things catch up a bit. And after all, while it's been cool, it's still been warmer than either of those unusual years. The temperature chart below has a line for each year this decade, with 2019 in red to make it easily visible. The 2010 and 2011 lines show consistently colder growing seasons:

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

So, while I'm not expecting a late-September start, I think we're likely to be waiting until mid-September to see anything significant off the estate, and I think it's a better than 50/50 proposition that we're still harvesting into November. But that's not a bad thing. The climate here in Paso Robles is pretty reliable until mid-November, and I tend to prefer the balance and character of vintages with longer hang times. Meanwhile, we'll keep our eyes out for veraison, which kicks off the roughly 6-week sprint to harvest. So far, so good.


Why flowering 2019 indicates a later-than-normal but robust, high quality harvest

There are five 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 late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track.  Flowering, which we began mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into mid-June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season more like last year's than what we got used to the rest of the decade. An example, from one of our Grenache blocks on June 3rd:

Flowering 2019 grenache

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.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  Cold or wet 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.  This year, the cool spring conditions seem to have delayed flowering long enough that even our late rain in mid-May seems to have rolled through before the flowers were open enough to be susceptible to much damage, and conditions have been ideal ever since. We are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. (It's also worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.)

I always think it's interesting to compare our current year to a range of recent ones. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2019 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2019

You'll likely notice a couple of things. First, May was actually cooler than April, for the first time this decade. And it felt like that too. April felt benign, with less than 0.1" of rain, no frosts, and an average high temperature of 73.4F. May was another story. The Paso Robles Wine Festival, which often coincides with our first hot weekend of the year, took place under conditions that felt more like February: low 60s, with rain threatening. We got seven days with measurable precipitation, totaling 1.44" (triple the 0.44" we average in a normal May). The average high temperature was 70.7F, and eighteen days failed to make it into the 70s. Five days failed to make it even into the 60s.

Second, you'll likely notice the rapid recovery of average temperatures in June. This trend actually began the last week of May, which was (fortunately) right when we first saw flowering. But even that warm-up has been modest, as we've yet to have the temperature here break 100. The next week looks like it's supposed to be in the 80s every day. That's pretty much ideal.

Looking for a comp is premature, as so much depends on what comes next, but it's starting off like 2015, where we ricocheted between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  But it's also not that different from 2018, when a cool early season built to a scorching July before settling back down to a cooler harvest. But whatever the future holds, we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're 6.3% below our average number of degree days through June 16th, and 25.8% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  I'll keep updating you throughout the summer, as there's a long way to go.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the winter rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  It's not just the grapevines that are flowering away. We've got blooms all over our olive trees:

Olive flowering 2019

And the California poppies are still putting on a show, at a time of year when they're often past their primes:

CA poppies June 2019

But the main event is, as always, the grapevines. We're thrilled with what we've seen so far. Fingers crossed for more of the same. And if you visit a vineyard in the next few weeks, take a sniff... the scent can be intoxicating.

Flowering Grenache 2019


An Ideal Beginning to the 2019 Growing Season

In an ideal vineyard world, we get cold, wet weather, with regularly frosty nights, until mid-March, and then it turns warm and dries out after. A pattern like this means that we've banked enough water to give us good confidence in the vineyard's ability to weather the dry season, that we've extended dormancy until late enough in the spring that we reduce our risk of frost, and that once things sprout we can move forward smoothly getting the vineyard cleaned up and the vines thinned and flowering.

Enter the 2019 growing season, which has unfolded exactly as we'd like to see. Our last frosty night was March 14th; it's been mostly dry and benign since then; and the combination of wet winter and warm spring has produced excellent growth in the grapevines, the cover crops, and the flock. The vines are out several inches, and we're even starting to see flower clusters form:

Spring 2019 Flower Clusters 2

We're still a couple of weeks away from actual flowering, but look like we're on a similar path to what we saw last year (when our first flowering happened mid-May). All this is just what we'd like to see, and it gives us the chance to focus on making the most of the explosive cover crop growth we saw last winter. Sure, much of it will be turned under to decompose in the soil, but we've also invested in a new baler which will allow us to dry and store the nutrient rich feed to nourish our flock in the late summer and early fall months when forage is scarce.  These round bales are dotting the vineyard landscape right now:

Spring 2019 Bales of Cover Crop

The eventual goal is to turn even these mowed rows under, accelerating the breakdown of the plant matter and eliminating any potential competition with the grapevines for the soil's water. If we time this right, and avoid any late-season rainstorms, this should be a one-shot effort, and within another month, every row in the vineyard should look like the Pinot Noir at my mom's place (though there's still obviously work to do to get the weeds out from among the vine rows):

Spring 2019 Spaded Vineyard

In all these efforts, the weather pattern that we've seen the last few weeks (a warm-up into the upper 80s, then a cool down into the 60s, then the pattern restarts) is just perfect. Fingers crossed that the rest of spring unfolds as ideally. 


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.