After two of our five rainiest months ever, we're ready for a break... but grateful for the moisture
I left California three weeks ago, just after Christmas, to spend some time in New England with family. At the time, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about how our winter was shaping up. We'd banked nearly 13" of rain and were at something like 170% of the rain we'd have expected at that point in the winter. The day I left, it started raining and essentially hasn't stopped. With the two-thirds of an inch that we got today, this makes 20 of the last 21 days we've seen measurable precipitation. The end-of-December rain pushed us to 13.28" for the month, making it our second-wettest December in the 25 years since we installed our weather station and a top-5 rainfall month overall.
Then came January. A series of atmospheric river storms paraded across the Pacific and slammed into California. Some were aimed farther north, but still dropped a couple of inches of rain. And one arrived on early in the morning of Monday, January 9th with its plume of moisture directed squarely at the Central Coast. We tallied 5.65" that day, including more than 4" in its peak between 1am and 10am. And when we arrived to see how things looked at the winery that morning, we realized that we couldn't even get there because Las Tablas Creek was flowing over Adelaida Road:
We are getting pummeled by this storm in Paso Robles wine country. This is Vineyard Drive near the entrance to our vineyard. All along Vineyard and Adelaida there are trees and branches down, water spilling over, and mudslides like in the last scene on Adelaida Rd. pic.twitter.com/QVydqd3qfU— Tablas Creek (@TablasCreek) January 9, 2023
It wasn't until Wednesday that we could make it into our facility, and Thursday that we could reopen our tasting room. Thanks to some great work by our neighbors at Halter Ranch the debris blocking the culvert that was causing the creek to flow over the road was removed before the road was critically damaged. There was a section of Adelaida Road a few miles east of us that wasn't so lucky. And we had to close again this past Saturday because a new storm made access to the winery unsafe. Residents and businesses out here are still picking up the pieces, and what we're seeing is minor compared to the scale of damage around the state, with 19 deaths so far and floods forcing people from their homes from Sacramento to Santa Barbara.
Still, while we wish it had been spread out more, we're grateful to have received the rain. And when I got out in the vineyard today, it was stunning: lush and green from the saturated soils yet with minimal signs of erosion even on our steepest slopes:
There wasn't really any standing water, even at the bottom of the hills, thanks to the remarkable ability our calcareous soils have to transport enormous quantities of water from the surface to deeper layers. That said, there was some water slowly trickling downhill in blocks like this head-trained Mourvedre at the northern edge of the property. It was wet enough that I nearly lost my boots getting this shot:
For all its beauty now, it's clear that things were pretty wild a week ago. You can see the deep cuts in the channels where valleys became rushing creeks (left) and the impact of 36 hours of water flowing over Adelaida Road (right):
With nearly half the month still to come, January 2023 is already our third-wettest month in our history, trailing only January 2017 and (from before I started writing this blog) February 1998. We're at 281% of expected rainfall for this point in the winter and above our full-winter long-term average. After three years of drought, that's a huge relief.
You can see from the rainfall distribution above why this season is so critical for us. We get three-quarters of our annual rainfall between December and March. If we have an extended winter dry stretch, it's almost impossible to make it up later. And drought impacts are cumulative. Grapevines generally do fine the first year of a drought cycle, thanks to their accumulated vigor. But starting the second year, you see the reduction in yields, and by the third year you start to see impacts on vine health and mortality. That's played out for us the last three years. 2020 saw roughly average yields. But 2021 saw yields off by 26% and 2022 saw them decline another 8%. A quick look at our available wines shows many more sold-out than for sale. And that's before we've even gotten to the 2022 vintage, from which there will be several wines we just won't be able to make. So getting rain this winter was particularly important.
Vineyards themselves are typically resilient in the face of extreme rainfall events. Those events typically come in winter, when the vines are dormant, and grapevines' deep roots play an important role in helping hold soil in place. Vineyards that are regeneratively farmed tend to do even better. Both no-till farming and planted cover crops (one or the other is required for regenerative certifications) keep surface erosion to a minimum. The focus on building up the organic matter in your soils helps them hold more moisture. And the biodiversity in regenerative farming systems tends to create a denser web of life than monocultures. Witness this section in the middle of the vineyard, which a decade ago was one of our most erosion-prone areas but which we planted to a mix of perennial crops that would act as attractors for beneficial insects. The combination of shrubs and deep grass, already well-established because it hasn't been tilled in years, made for one of the least-soggy sections of the vineyard:
Looking forward, we're supposed to get a few more showery days and then a solid week at least of sun. That will be welcome for everyone, from vineyard to residents to businesses. It should give the county a chance to get out and repair the damaged roads. It should shift the cover crop into overdrive, and make for some very happy sheep. It will give the soils a chance to transfer the water to deeper layers and free up space at the surface for the next storm. It might even give us a chance to get started on our pruning, which we've been unable to do because pruning in wet weather encourages the spread of fungal diseases. But as happy as we are with what we've received, we're hoping this isn't the end of the rain. The local reservoirs still have significant room; while Lake Nacimiento is at 87% capacity, Lake San Antonio is only at 32%. At Tablas Creek we're chipping away at an accumulated rainfall deficit of 28" from the last three years of drought. Plus there would be benefits during the growing season, as soils with high moisture content stay cool longer in the spring and delay budbreak, which would reduce our risk of frost damage. And on a purely aesthetic level, there's a particular character to the green here after winter rain that I love. Who wouldn't want more of this?
If you were negatively impacted by these storms, please know you have our deepest sympathy. It's been a rough couple of weeks for California. But if you were worried that the vineyards here would be suffering, hopefully we can at least put that to rest. We have high hopes for the 2023 vintage.