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


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

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

Winter Rainfall 2020-21 vs Normal

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

Winter Frost Nights 2010-2021

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

Budbreak 2021 - Viognier Flowerws

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

Budbreak 2021 - Counoise Spur

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Roussanne

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

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

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

Sheep in Grenache March 2021

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

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

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

Budbreak 2021 - Grenache


After a Foot of Rain, the Green Comes Fast

Normally, early February is already notably green. In a typical year, we'd get our first rain in November sometime, with more every week or two through December and January. By this time, you'd expect it to look something like this photo below, taken in early February of 2019:

Green Scruffy Hill February 2019

Not so much, this year. You can see in the photos that I shared in my blog recapping last week's storm that it was almost entirely brown still in the vineyard. The roughly inch and a half of rain we'd received wasn't enough to germinate either the native seeds or the cover crop we'd planted. But with over a foot of rain last Tuesday through Friday, and mostly sunny weather since, the vineyard's transformation from brown to green is happening fast. Here are a few photos that will give you a sense. First, a shot looking up down and back up between two rows of Grenache Blanc toward the western part of the vineyard:

Crosshairs new Green

A little further west, in a head-trained Grenache block, a similar carpet is appearing:

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On a steeper part of the same vineyard block, you can see how we pull the Yeoman's Plow across the slope to slow the flow of water downhill and encourage absorption rather than surface flow:

Head trained vines with yeomans plow lines
A longer view of that same block shows the new green growth even more clearly:   

Crosshairs head trained new green

Despite our late start, I'm not worried that we'll miss out on a significant amount of the organic matter that the cover crops create. Even in a normal year, December and January aren't great months for cover crop growth, with their regularly below-freezing nights and short days. It's not until late February, as the days get longer and warmer, that the cover crop really gets going. But from here on out, I expect the view to change by the day. Annual plants in California are always in a hurry to take advantage of the rainy season to build root and leaf systems, create carbohydrates, and then go to seed, all before the summer's heat and dry conditions take over. The rain may have come a couple of months late, but the cover crops are going to look like they're trying to make up for lost time. And views like this last one, looking at the setting sun through our olive trees, are only going to get greener by the day.

Sunset Olive Trees and New Green

I look forward to sharing the ongoing transformation with you.


Assessing the Historic January 2021 Winter Storm on California's Central Coast

I sit here in my office at the vineyard, looking at a sunny landscape outside, listening to birdsong coming in through my open window. It could be a California Chamber of Commerce commercial. What a change from the last 72 hours, during which we saw the largest storm in our 31-year history drop 12.71" of rain on us. For perspective, that's almost half of what we expect to receive in a normal year (26") and 828% of the total that we'd received so far since fall. Since we installed our weather station in 1996, we've had just five months that exceeded the rain we received in this storm.

Before I dive into how the rain came down, what things look like now, and what we think its long-term impacts will be, let me set the stage. I wasn't out here the past two days, but Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi took a break from overseeing a bottling run we couldn't reschedule to capture this great photo of our flock sheltering under our solar panels during the height of the storm Wednesday:

Sheep huddling under solar panels in storm

The rain started Tuesday around 8pm, with four-hundredths of an inch that hour. Both rain and wind built in intensity, with our strongest gust (40.8mph) coming at 4am Wednesday. That hour was also the first hour where we got over a quarter-inch of rain. We would exceed that total for the next 22 hours, ending 2am Thursday. By that point we had accumulated 9.42" of rain, nearly double the 5.36" that we would expect in an average January. At that point the rain slowed down, but we had measurable rainfall every hour for another 20 hours, ending at 10pm Thursday evening and picking up another 3.02". And while the bulk of the storm had moved past us, we did get some more showers early Friday morning, accumulating an extra 0.27" in total. The final tally of 12.71" is the most we've ever seen from one storm, eclipsing the 9.6" we received in one storm in October of 2009

What drove this storm? A meteorological phenomenon called an atmospheric river, where a relatively narrow plume of moisture stretches from southwest to northeast across the Pacific, funneling tropical moisture toward the California coast. This is different than a typical storm, which is centered around a low pressure system and rotates counter-clockwise. While those storms can bring intense rainfall, they don't generally pummel the same spot for hours on end. Atmospheric rivers are a critical part of California's water systems, and even moderate atmospheric rivers can produce significant coastal rainfall and Sierra Nevada snow. Powerful atmospheric rivers can bring staggering amounts of precipitation, refilling reservoirs and aquifers but also causing flooding and mudslides. A satellite photo shared by the Western Weather Group, which provides forecasts for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, shows the storm system clearly:

Atmospheric River Satellite Image

Remarkably, this picture could have been taken any time Wednesday or Thursday, as the plume of moisture barely moved for two days. The Adelaida area where we are was the center of the storm's bullseye, accumulating triple or quadruple the already-significant totals that most of the rest of the AVA saw. And that water adds up. Our area drains into Lake Nacimiento, and the storm raised the lake's level by 24 feet since Tuesday, and its capacity from 21% to 39%. That may not sound like much, but it's a massive lake whose surface area grew by 1,000 acres since Tuesday, adding more than 21 billion gallons to its volume. 

I got out into the vineyard today, and found that it held up better than I'd feared it would to this onslaught of rain. As you would expect given that it had been so dry that our cover crops weren't well established yet, there was some surface erosion in some of our blocks, like this Cinsaut planting:

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 Or at the edge of this old block containing Counoise and Mourvedre:

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The roads, which are less porous than the vineyards, are always at greater risk of erosion. That's true both in the case of unimproved roads, like this one running down from our old nursery buildings toward Last Tablas Creek:

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And even on the vineyard roads where we laid straw to slow the flow of water and limit erosion the many hours of flowing water were enough to overwhelm our preparations:

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The calcareous soils that underlie Tablas Creek are so absorbent that the vast majority of the water soaked in. I only found one vineyard block that had any standing water in it: a head-trained Grenache block near the north end of the property:

Standing Water after January 2021 storm

But most of the vineyard looked like it was in great shape. This old Grenache block is representative:

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The water that did run off ended up in Las Tablas Creek, eventually flowing into Lake Nacimiento. Today, the creek was hardly a raging torrent:

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That relatively gentle flow, even on the last day of a historic storm, should tell you one more thing in addition to providing evidence of how absorbent our soils are. This winter, up until now, has been exceptionally dry. Normally, by the end of January we'd expect to have received about 13.5" of rain. Before this storm hit, our winter total sat at a paltry 1.37". Thanks to our recent atmospheric river, we've recovered from about 10% of normal rainfall to about 105% of normal rainfall. But even with this storm, what we've seen is only about average for a winter at this point.

What's next? Hopefully, a few days of sun to transfer the water from saturated surface soils to deeper layers, and to give the cover crop a chance to get growing. We have gotten a little growth, but it's variable and nowhere particularly well established. This section, which we left fallow this year in preparation for a new Mourvedre planting this spring, is probably the farthest along:

New Green Growth 2021

But before too much longer, we'd like some more rain. It looks like there's a little in the forecast for next week. A moderate storm of a couple of inches every 10 days or so would be just about perfect. If you've got sway with any weather gods, please let them know.

Meanwhile, we'll be grateful that we've made up three months of rainfall deficit in three days. We'll be looking forward to the vineyard being noticeably greener in under a week. And we'll be listening to the splash and burble of Las Tablas Creek flowing after 10 dry months. It may not be rushing torrent, but it's a more than healthy start.

Las Tablas Creek


A picture is worth 1000 words, late fall edition

With our tasting room closed again due to our Regional Stay Home Order, we've decided that it's more important than ever to share lots of photos to make sure that people can maintain a sense of what it's like out here. To that end, I was out yesterday walking around the vineyard to get some photos to share, and found it inescapable how dry it was. Often, by early December, we've gotten a couple of nice rainstorms, and the vineyard is already notably green. Not in 2020. It's been cold, which is good, because it forces the grapevines into dormancy, but we've only gotten a couple of small rainstorms, and nothing recently. I couldn't help but feel the stress of the grapevines I passed.

And yet, the annual cycle continues. I got one photo of a head-trained Mourvedre vine, roughly a decade old, that I thought was illustrative:

Head Trained Mourvedre Vine in Late Fall

Consider, if you will, the stresses that this and all our other vines have endured this year and endure, more or less, each year:

  • An almost total lack of topsoil. Our deepest topsoils are a couple of feet thick, and much of the property has the fractured calcareous shale you see right at the surface. 
  • Minimal rain for six months every summer and fall. Our total rainfall in the last 8 months is 0.8"⁠. That's a little extreme, but the average total May-October rainfall here at Tablas Creek over the last 25 years is just over two inches. Yes, our winters are wet. And yes, our soils do an amazing job retaining that winter rain. But this is a lot more extreme than anything grapevines have to deal with even in the driest parts of Europe.
  • Regular frosts in the winter. In the last month, it's dropped below freezing ten nights. That's not unusual; we average about 40 frost nights a year here, and though we've been lucky in recent years, spring freezes are the most significant annual weather threat we face. That too is more than Mediterranean regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape face.
  • Scorching summers. This summer, we had 21 days top 100. That was unusual; I wrote earlier this year how 2020 was the year where climate change felt real. But we average roughly a dozen 100+ days each year. And while the Mediterranean can get very hot, 90s are a lot more common than 100s there.

That Mourvedre vine has never had a drop of irrigation. There's not even any irrigation infrastructure in that block. And yet, each year it sprouts, flowers, ripens a crop, and stores what it needs for the next year. And out of this struggle comes grapes (and wines) of intensity and character. Deep roots that reflect the calcareous soils we love. Resilience and longevity.

It's not an easy life, but we wouldn't have it any other way.