Flowering and Fruit Set Provide Reasons for Optimism After a Challenging Beginning to 2022

At the beginning of the growing season, no news is usually good news. If you avoid frost, and avoid cold or wet or windy weather during flowering, you can expect to see fruit set (when the berries start to form) roughly two months after budbreak. And in the sections of the vineyard where we avoided frost, that's what we're seeing. This Syrah vine is a good example:

Fruit Set 2022 - Syrah

2022, however, has not been a news-free spring. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about our frosts. And though most of the vineyard avoided dropping below freezing, it got cold everywhere, which has lesser but still important impacts on the vines' ability to fertilize the flowers and turn them into grapes.

Flowering and fruit set mark 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 highlights the extent to which 2022 has so far been an outlier, 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 where temperatures bottomed out at or below 32 at our weather station. The first 53 days of the growing season (April 1st - May 23st), through the third weekend of May which we usually take as the unofficial end of frost season, provide a good marker. Here's how 2022 compares to past years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights ≤ 32°F
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
2021 499 2 13 2
Average 2012-2021 491.6 3.1 17.9 0.9
2022 554 6 13 3

You can see that 2022 has been a bit warmer than average overall, but the devil is in the details (and the frost nights). We had two of our 90+ days in early April, which meant that things were far enough out that the April 12th and 13th frost nights had more impact than they might have in a cooler year. And the other frost night on May 10th was so late that everything was out far enough to take some significant damage, and the four chilly, windy days that preceded it, none of which got into the 70s, were in a position to impact flowering in our early varieties. 

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. So it wasn't a shock that when I explored our Grenache blocks I found evidence of shatter:

Fruit Set 2022 - Grenache

Is this a catastrophe? No. A little shatter in Grenache can actually be a good thing, because it opens up the clusters and means we don't have to do as much fruit thinning on this famously productive grape. And that seems to be the degree we're seeing, with impacts in the 20%-50% range. It's additional good news is that I couldn't find any evidence of shatter in anything else.

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 that we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom for another couple of weeks. Our late-sprouting varieties like Roussanne are still in peak flowering:

Flowering 2022 - Roussanne

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. 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, weeks after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. We might not know where everything is going. But for our early grapes, like the Viognier below, things are well on their way.

Fruit Set 2022 - Viognier


Frost damage and recovery... and damage and recovery

Paso Robles has many natural climatic advantages. We don't have to worry about hailstorms in the summer, or rain during harvest. Our humidity is low so mildew isn't usually a big challenge. The chilly summer nights mean that our grapes maintain good acids and get extended hang-times even despite our 320 days of sun each year and our typically hot summer days. But the one natural risk that we deal with each year is spring frosts. And after a decade of avoiding them, 2022 marks their unwelcome return.

During dormancy, frosts are not harmful and in fact usually beneficial. But after budbreak, which began this year in mid-March, any new growth is susceptible to frost damage. Our tools to deal with frosts are limited. We have micro-sprinklers that do a great job, but only enough water to protect our most frost-prone ten acres. We use big fans, which work by mixing the cold air at the surface with the warmer air aloft, to protect our next-most-vulnerable 30 acres. These fans work if there is a defined inversion layer, where above-freezing air is within 10 feet or so of the surface. That happens with a surprisingly large percentage of our spring frosts here, but it's not as reliable as water. As for our other 80 acres of grapevines, on hilltops and steep slopes, they have to fend for themselves. Usually they're OK. 

This year, we first saw some post-budbreak frost nights in mid-April, when several nights saw lows just below freezing and on April 13th temperatures dropped briefly into the upper-20s. Those frosts singed the new growth in several blocks, including some higher blocks that are rarely affected, but they didn't wipe anything out, and it appeared that the frost fans really helped. I would estimate that those frost events cumulatively impacted less than 5% of the property's producing vines, and I was feeling fortunate, on the whole.

Fast-forward to last week. Sometime between 5am and 6am last Wednesday, May 11th, the weather station in the center of Tablas Creek Vineyard registered 30.6°F. That's cold, particularly for this late in the year. And it did some damage in that area, singeing the growth of some of the Tannat, Cinsaut, Counoise, and Syrah. Fortunately, it was below freezing for less than an hour, and it looks like the fan we have set up there kept things from getting too bad. The Cinsaut vine below is on the more-damaged side, and even it isn't a complete loss:

May 2022 Frost - Cinsaut

You can see from the above photo that frost manifests itself, at least after a couple of days, in crispy, brown leaves that look burned. Often it's just part of a vine that gets frozen, with areas of damage as you see at the top and other leaves, shoots, and clusters that are fine. It can feel arbitrary or even capricious, and it's not hard if you walk around the vineyard to find vines with one frozen shoot among a dozen green ones, or one surviving shoot among a dozen frozen ones, as in this Syrah vine:

May 2022 Frost - Syrah

In this central section of the vineyard, which is about 10 acres, I'd estimate damage for our mature sections in the 15% range. That's painful but not crippling. I'm more worried about the two new vineyard blocks in that area, whose young vines got frozen and who don't have the same reserves that older vines do to regrow. I think it's likely that we'll see some vine mortality, but it's too early to know how much.

Unfortunately, a different section of the vineyard got hit much harder. That block, which we call Nipple Flat and whose 11 acres includes blocks of Roussanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino, is at the southern end of the property, closest to Las Tablas Creek. Because it's the property's lowest point, and cold air flows downhill, last Wednesday night was colder, and it stayed cold longer, dropping below 32°F at 3am and bottoming out at 28.1°F at 6:15am. We have a fan there too, but evidently the cold air pooled deep enough that it was blowing below-freezing air around. You can see from the below photo that the swale in the background is all brown, in contrast to the not-quite-as-low section in the foreground that is still green. That lower area (which accounts in my estimate for about 60% of this block) will likely not produce any fruit this year:

May 2022 Frost - Nipple Flat

This isn't the first time we've seen damaging spring frosts. We lost half our crop due to April frosts in 2001, 2009, and 2011 (I even wrote about our 2011 frost on the blog). Those were a little different, earlier in the year (so the vines were less far out) but more widespread, where our frost fans didn't do any good since even at the tops of the hills the temperatures were below freezing. That meant that everything had to re-sprout, and the damage to our production was roughly relative to how far out they were, with the earliest grapes taking the biggest hit.

Because of our experience in those past years, we know pretty well what happens after April frosts. The frozen shoots die back, but the grapevines have enough vigor to sprout secondary buds, and those buds typically carry half the fruit load of the primary buds. You can see a good example from our April frost, in our Grenache. The frost-damaged shoot was still there this week, almost hidden in the canopy of new growth:

April 2022 Frost - Grenache

What happens next with the extensively damaged sections of the vineyard is uncharted waters for us, because of how late this frost event was and how far out the vines were. We assume that they will re-sprout and produce new canes and leaves. Evolutionarily, the vines need to photosynthesize carbohydrates and store up that energy to survive the winter and have a go at making fruit in 2023. Will they set clusters? Maybe a few, but I'm not expecting much, because they've spent a lot of their winter reserves in growth that is now damaged. Any crop they do set is going to be a month at least behind, and we'll have to worry about whether it will be able to ripen before (hopefully) rain and (eventually) frost this November.

In terms of impacts to our 2022 harvest, our biggest worry is Roussanne, where the eight acres on Nipple Flat account for roughly three-quarters of our producing acreage. That will have real impacts on how much Esprit de Tablas Blanc we can make and what its blend will be, and likely will preclude a varietal Roussanne. Our bigger picture, though, is not as dire. The badly-affected blocks represent something like 10% of our producing acreage. When you add in the more minor damage in other blocks between our April and May frost events, we're probably looking at something between a 15% and 20% reduction on the crops that we would have had if we'd avoided frosts. That's not nothing: probably 3,000 or 4,000 lost cases of wine that we'd otherwise be making in 2022.

But it could have been worse. 


Budbreak 2022: Early, Despite Our Chilly Winter (Blame the Lack of Rain)

This winter's precipitation has fizzled after a wonderfully wet December. Although we've still got a few chances for more rain (including later this week) there's nothing substantial on the horizon, and March is the last month when we'd expect significant rainfall. So, we're resigning ourselves to another drought year. As you'd probably expect, that is likely to have an impact on our yields. What you might not expect is that it also impacts when the growing season starts. But it does. Because rising soil temperatures are one of the main signals that grapevines use to come out of dormancy in the spring, and because dry soils warm up faster than wet soils, we've been on the lookout for our warmer spots -- and our earlier-sprouting varieties -- to start their growing season. So this is no big surprise:

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache

So far, we've only seen leaves on three varieties (Grenache, above, plus Grenache Blanc and Viognier) and even in those blocks, it's rare. Viognier, for example, has lots of swollen buds but only a few tiny leaves visible, even at the top of the block:

Budbreak 2022 - Viognier

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.

Budbreak 2022 is happening a bit early, historically, a couple of weeks earlier than average. That said, we're still two weeks after our earliest-ever budbreak in 2016. Here's when we first recorded significant budbreak the last decade:

2021: Last week of March
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

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. Well more than 90% of the vineyard is still dormant. This Grenache bud, from halfway up the block from which the first photo was taken, looks just like it would have in January:

Budbreak 2022 - Dormant Grenache

As I noted in the introduction, 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. 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.

Now our biggest worry becomes frost. Before budbreak, the vines are safely dormant, and a freeze doesn't harm them. We've had 35 days this winter where the weather station in our vineyard measured below freezing temperatures, a more or less normal number for us. But once the vines 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 nearly two months to go before we can relax. We'll be up a lot at night, turning on frost fans and microsprinklers to help protect the new growth as best we can. Because all our low-lying areas are still dormant, and we choose later-sprouting grapes to go in those lower, more frost-prone vineyard blocks, we're still likely OK if we get a moderate frost in the next week or two. But by the end of March we'll be beyond that.  

Meanwhile, we're trying to keep our sheep in the vineyard as long as possible. Knowing budbreak was imminent, we've moved them to late-sprouting blocks like this Mourvedre section at the south end of the property. With the early start to this year's cover crop growth, this was their third pass here, which is great:

Budbreak 2022 - Sheep in Mourvedre

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. That said, after six solid weeks of high pressure between mid-January and late February, the weather pattern we're in now is more mixed. There's no big rain on the horizon, but there are some smaller storms. It's generally in the aftermath of the passage of a cold front that we worry about a hard freeze. So rain now comes as a mixed blessing. Fingers crossed, please. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hopefulness of new growth. It feels metaphorical this year. With March 2020 marking the beginning of lockdowns for most of the country and March 2021 marking the start of a transitional year, as vaccines got into circulation and people started emerging cautiously into mixed company again, this March feels less fraught. We just hosted our first educational seminar here in more than two years. I poured at the Rhone Rangers tasting, my first big indoor event in exactly two years. We have a full slate of tastings and wine dinners planned this spring.

And now the vines are joining the party. Let's hope their (and our) journey out into the world is a smooth one.

Budbreak 2022 - Grenache Blanc


Why Annual Rainfall Is the Wrong Metric to Understand California Weather

After our lovely, wet December, the last six weeks have been almost completely dry. The last week has seen headlines that feel like flashbacks to 2015 or 2016, including Brush fires rage in Southern California amid record heat, worsening drought (Washington Post), California’s Drought-Relief Dreams Are Quickly Drying Up (Bloomberg), and As drought continues, Southern California offers millions to buy Sacramento Valley water (Sacramento Bee). And yet, here at Tablas Creek, 2021 finished with above-average rainfall at nearly 30 inches.

Although we do get more rainfall than most of the Central Coast, we're not alone in having 2021 be an above-average rainfall year. The city of Paso Robles recorded 16.75", about 119% of their 75-year average. Downtown Los Angeles saw 14.27" of rain, which was 98% of their 60-year average. So why are climatologists and reporters so downbeat about our current totals?

The secret to making sense of this is understanding the difference between the calendar year and the water year. In a place like California where nearly all our annual precipitation comes in the winter, the break between one calendar year and the next is not a meaningful way of looking at current conditions. Our rainfall distribution is such that in the winter, we're a rain forest climate, while in the summer, we're a desert (climate graph from the site climate-data.org, on which I spend probably more time than is healthy):

Rainfall Graph Paso Robles

As you can see, the calendar year ends just as the water year is really getting going. Take the winter of 2020-2021. We saw a punishingly dry early winter that left things in late January looking more like we'd expect in November than in March. We shared a piece on our social media in mid-January that I found really dramatic: a photo taken from the same spot on the same day in 2022 (exceptionally green) and 2021 (entirely brown):

Green and Brown from same perspective 2021 vs 2022

When the rain did come last winter, it came with a vengeance, in the form of an atmospheric river that dumped more than a foot of rain on us in roughly 48 hours on January 27th and 28th. That ended up being most of the rain we got last winter, with just over an inch more before summer came. But still, the 13.85" we got January-June was more than 80% of our averages for those months. Combine that with the 14.2" of rain we got in our wet October and December, and you end up with a year that looks like it was 12% wetter than average. Instead, what you really have is a function of the calendar. Last winter's total of 15.09" was just 60% of a normal rainfall year. And unless some unforecasted rain comes before the end of February, we'll be below 80% of normal rainfall for this rainfall year too.

There's still time. March is often one of our wettest months, averaging more than four inches of rain. As recently as 2018, a "Miracle March" turned what looked like a truly scary rainfall picture into something closer to average. And thanks to our wet December, we're worlds ahead of where we were that winter. But unless it rains again soon, we're likely to see early budbreak as drier soils and the higher soil temperatures they allow cue the grapevines to begin their growing season. And more visibly, scenes like the below one will start to move from green to gold as the grasses go to seed in preparation for the long, dry summer:

Green Vineyard February 2022
None of that would be the end of the world. But we know that the clock is ticking on this rainfall year, with only another couple of months to go. So while 2022 is just getting started, the 2021-22 rainfall year is already on what feels like its final lap.


An assessment of winter 2021-22 after our wettest December since 2004

It seemed like a good omen for this winter when we got several inches of rain in late October. Typically, winters where there's significant early rain (like 2004-05, 2009-10, or 2016-17) end up being drought-breakers, the sorts of years where you replenish aquifers and set your vineyard up for at least a couple of vintages. But then we had an almost-entirely-dry November, which combined with the moderate la nina conditions in place this year, suggested below-average rain. So it was with relief that the storm door opened the second week of December and directed a series of weather systems at the California coast. We got measurable rain twelve of the final nineteen days of the month for a total of 11.06 inches. That puts us at something like 175% of normal rainfall to date:

Rainfall by Month Winter 2021-22

With the storm door closed at the moment, it seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at what this rain means for the winter, and more relevantly this upcoming harvest's prospects. After two dry years, it's wonderful to see how incredibly green the vineyard is, grass growing fast now that the sun is out:

Tall grass and animal enclosure

After moving them to shelter during the biggest storm, both for their own safety and so they didn't compress the wet soil too much, the sheep are back in the vineyard enjoying all the new grass:

Sheep in nursery block

The early rain, and the cover crop growth it produced, allowed us to make a full rotation through the vineyard already. It's pretty cool walking through vineyard blocks and seeing the sheep manure from just a few weeks ago already nearly obscured by regrown grass:

Tall grass and sheep manure

The water we received, despite its volume, nearly all soaked in and saturated the absorbent limestone clay layers, with only a tiny fraction percolating into our watershed. Las Tablas Creek is flowing, but it's hardly a raging torrent:

Las Tablas Creek

Evidence of the abundance of moisture at the surface is provided by new growth of water-loving plants like mushrooms (left) and miner's lettuce (right):

Mushrooms Miners Lettuce

A little break of sun is welcome at this point. It will give the recent rain a chance to penetrate deeply and will super-charge the growth of the cover crop. We're hoping to get the sheep through two more full rotations through the vineyard before we have to move them out for budbreak, and it seems likely we'll be able to given the abundance of food.

Even better, this moisture came without any significant negative impacts. Because of the absorbency of our soils, we don't worry much about erosion in the vineyard. But I was pleased to see the impact of the erosion mitigation measures  we took to keep our roads in good shape. The photo below shows one of these: straw bales that we put in drainage areas to divert the water into the vineyard, where it could soak in, rather than continuing down roadsides:

Erosion mitigation

Overall, I'm feeling like we've gotten the beginning of winter we all were hoping for. We're ahead of schedule for water, already having exceeded the full-winter totals we've seen in recent years like 2013-14, 2014-5, and (most importantly) 2020-21, with more than half the rainy season still to come. We've already booked 13 below-freezing nights, which means that the vineyard is fully and truly dormant. The cover crops look like they're in for an outstanding year. 

What would an ideal second half of winter look like? A few weeks of sun, then a resumption of more rain in the second half of January. Continued periodic storms and frosty nights in February and March. And come early April, a smooth transition to more benign weather with no more frost, so budbreak can proceed uninterrupted. Can we do it? Time will tell. But we're off to a great start.


Yes, it does get cold in Paso Robles.

[Editor's note: With this blog, we introduce Austin Collins to the Tablas Creek blog audience. Cellar Assistant here at Tablas Creek since the beginning of 2019, Austin's history here on the property goes much further back than that, as our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins is his dad and he grew up here on property. Now with Neil having moved to town Austin is back living on-site, and I am very excited for you to get to see Tablas Creek through his eyes!]

By Austin Collins

Before I give you what you really want I feel that I am obliged to introduce myself. My name is Austin Collins, but most people refer to me simply as "Boo". While I am officially titled as a Cellar Assistant my role at Tablas Creek Vineyard was graciously expanded last year. I now have the unique honor of living on premises with my growing family as property caretaker. Because of this I get to spend a lot of time walking vine rows and spending some quality time with my Vitis neighbors. 

Most people know the undeniable heat that bears down on the soils of Paso Robles, but that's summer. This is winter. Along with the drop in temperature we have been blessed with a decent start to the rainy season. This week we had our second substantial rain event, which was immediately followed by a hard freeze. This combination transformed the land into a tundra like setting, frost gripping every surface before melting and dropping to the earth with the sun's first rays:

Image_50407937

It may seem like a shocking change for the vines to endure, and it is. But, that's something that makes the Paso Robles AVA so special. The buds for next year's vintage need a certain amount of chilling time to allow a timely and healthy budbreak in the spring:

IMG-2154

While the vines are entering their hibernation phase they are not the only ones out in the cold. Our cover crop, an essential cog in our farming system, is also battling the frost. We use a frost-hardy seed blend to allow plenty of time for our "coworkers", including this pea plant, to do their job for the soil:

Image_50739969

In the rows where cover crop is not seeded, native grasses hold claim. Unlike December of 2020 we already have a substantial growth of these native grasses covering the property:

Grass

With the native grasses and cover crops growing, our thoughts move to the 2022 growing season. But the past harvest still sits fresh in our minds. In fact the vineyard still hangs on as well. A few last second-crop clusters, left unpicked because they were unripe at harvest time, remain clutched to the canes:

Second

For this last photo I bring you to a special spot in the vineyard, one that I always find myself returning to. A lone willow tree that sits in one of the lowest parts of the vineyard. This Salix, a family of trees that thrive in riparian zones, is an indication of the moisture present underground even in our often-arid region:

Willow

Although it is a quiet time for viticulture work in the vineyard we cannot forget the work of the vines themselves. Storing intracellular energy to support the upcoming vintage, these cold times are vital to the wine that ends up on your table. Until spring comes I sit here on my stoop with my wife and newborn son on my lap -- the third Collins generation to live on this property -- enjoying the rain and hoping for more. We care for this land, and it is our purpose to do so. 


Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


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


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