The vineyard and harvest impacts -- positive and negative -- of our unusual September rain

It's definitely been a month with interesting weather. Just three weeks ago I was writing a blog Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave. And that heat wave was intense, with ten days in a row over 100°F, though we feel like we escaped the worst impacts that were felt in some of the regions to our north. Now, a week after that heat wave broke, we got our first real rain of the 2022-23 winter, and not from some tropical monsoonal moisture that just wandered a little far north, as we sometimes see in late summer here. No, we got a real winter storm plunging out of the Gulf of Alaska, bringing significant rain to the northern two-thirds of California:

While harvest rain is rare here in Paso Robles, it's not unheard of. In the last two decades, the only other year we received September rain was in 2010, but we got rain before the end of October in 2004, 2006, 2021, and most notably 2009, when we received nearly ten inches on October 13th. And it's more common in other wine-growing regions around the world; Chateauneuf-du-Pape, for example, has harvest rain most years, as September and October are the two rainiest months of the year. Walking around the vineyard this morning shows a very non-Californian scene, with mist in the air and droplets of water on the leaves and clusters of the vines that still have fruit. Check out Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right):

Mourvedre cluster after the rain Counoise cluster after the rain

It's not like we got an ocean of rain; we got about a half inch overnight, with potentially another quarter-inch coming today. But the whole experience is rare enough that we've been getting tons of questions about what we expect, and we assembled this morning to discuss what's likely to happen. So I thought it might be helpful if I broke down our risks.

  • Dilution. When grapevines get rain late in the growing season, some of that water is pumped into the berries. That reduces both the percentage of sugar and the percentage of acid in the grapes, at least temporarily. As long as you get dry, warm weather after, that dilution is usually short-lived. And given how dry the summer has been, it's not always a bad thing. If you were following us during the heat wave, you know that we pre-emptively gave some water to our most heat-sensitive blocks, figuring that the minor amount of dilution, if it happened, was better than the alternative of having the vines shut down or even pull water out of the berries, creating hard, unripe raisins. Risk of this being an issue: low.
  • Rot. Fungus thrives in moisture. Luckily, most of the time during the growing season here, moisture is in short supply. But when it rains it offers any available rot spores a chance to grow and spread. Key to whether or not this happens is what comes after the rain. If it turns dry and you get a breeze, the moisture on the clusters is gone before any rot has a chance to take hold. If not, and particularly if it gets warm and stays humid, things can go south in a hurry. Looking at the forecast suggests that while today will remain cool, overcast, and showery, tomorrow and especially Wednesday look clear, dry, and breezy. That's good. On the flip side, the clusters and berries have already taken some damage from the heat, and are starting to soften, offering more opportunities for rot spores to get inside the grapes than you'd normally see this time of year. Risk of this being an issue: moderate.
  • Lack of access. Finally, an issue with wet weather is that it makes it difficult and messy to get tractors into the vineyard. Most times of year that's just an inconvenience; if you can't get into the vineyard to prune, or spread compost, or weed, it's usually not a big deal to wait a few days or even a few weeks. But during harvest, access is more important as grape chemistry can change on a daily basis, and if you can't get into the vineyard to pick you run the risk of missing your window. Mitigating this likelihood is that the grapes don't ripen particularly fast in this weather, and the roughly half-inch of rain isn't enough to saturate the deeper layers of the soil. A few days of dry, breezy weather and this won't be a problem. Risk of this being an issue: low.

 The impacts of the rain aren't all negative. In fact, there are some real positives. They include:

  • Helping the harvested vineyard blocks store energy for dormancy. While we do have some worries about the fruit still hanging, the impact of this rain on the two-thirds of the vineyard that has already been picked is nothing but positive. Those vines have expended a lot of resources getting fruit ripe over the past five months. We still have a couple of months of photosynthesis to go before they go dormant with the first hard freeze. It's normal for us to go through after we've finished picking and give the blocks that we can irrigate a bit of water anyway, to help them continue to photosynthesize and store up resources for next year. This rain does that for us, and more broadly than we ever could. 
  • Giving the grapevines with fruit still hanging the energy to make a final push. We've often seen when we've gotten early rain that after a few days where numbers (sugar and acid concentrations) retreat due to dilution, the vines then appear to get something of a second wind and make more progress toward ripeness than they had been doing before the rain. It's probably intuitive as to why. These vines have been pushing hard, with their most limited resource being water. Giving them the water that they need helps them photosynthesize more productively, and that photosynthesis translates into ripening.  
  • Cleaning the dust off the vines, clusters, and roads. It's been a long, hot, dusty summer. We've been running water trucks from our wetland area over the vineyard roads, trying to keep the dust down so that it doesn't settle on the vines (reducing photosynthesis in the same way in would on a home solar panel) and clusters (where it ultimately ends up settling to the bottom of tanks and barrels as a part of the lees). But while it's impractical to spray off the whole vineyard, that's what this rainstorm effectively did. Hey, we'll take it.

So while the rain isn't an uncomplicated boon, neither is it an unmitigated disaster. What happens over the next few days will determine whether we dodge the risk of rot, or whether we need to redouble our efforts and get the remaining grapes off the vines as fast as we can. If we did have to pick fast, at least everything is pretty much ready. The biggest issue would be space in the cellar, and we're trying to make good use of this break to press off tanks that have reached sufficient extraction to make room for what's coming. But if we get good weather later this week, this could actually end up being a good thing. Please keep your fingers crossed for dry and breezy starting tomorrow.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unexpected misty respite in what's usually a hot, dusty season. I'll leave you with two last photos so you can enjoy it, too.

Long view over Tannat after the rain

Long view after the rain


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.


Preparing for a potentially historic California harvest heat wave

So far this harvest season, the weather has been just about perfect. It's been warm (average high temp 93.5°F) but not too warm (highest high just 102.8°F, and just 48 hours over 95°F). Nights have been chilly (average low temp 54.7°F) but not too chilly (lowest low temp 47.7°F). Each warm stretch has been followed by a cool-off. You can get a sense of this by looking at the daily temperature ranges since August 1st:

Daily Temperatures August 2022

All that moderation is exactly what you want for your vines as they make that final push toward harvest. Unfortunately, it looks like we're getting something rather different starting tomorrow. A heat wave is coming, and it's a big one. The New York Times is calling it "brutal", the Washington Post is calling it "record-threatening", and the San Francisco Chronicle is calling it "dangerously hot". Here in Paso Robles, our forecast is for a string of days that might touch 110°F:

Forecast highs heat wave 2022

Many parts of California are looking at temperatures that will exceed seasonal norms by 12-14°C (22-25°F) in what is already a warm time of year. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecast (ECMWF) gives a great graphical depiction just how widespread the temperature anomaly will be across the western United States. A shout out to Daniel Swain and his blog Weather West, where I found this image, and which I consider required reading for anyone interested in California weather or climate:

Temperature Anomaly Heat Wave August 2022

A couple of mitigating factors give me some hope that we might escape the heat wave's worst effects. First, it's not quite as hot out here as in the town of Paso Robles. So if the forecast for town is 110°F, it's more likely to be 106°F or 107°F here. Those few degrees help. Second, the vineyard looks really healthy this year. That vigor is going to be put to the test in coming days, but at least we're starting from a good position. Third, it looks like the nights are supposed to cool off. Even at the height of the high pressure ridge, it looks like the town of Paso Robles is going to drop into the 60s. Out here it's usually 3-5°F cooler at night than in town. So the vines will still have a chance to refresh themselves a bit at night. And finally, it's late enough in the year that we have somewhat shorter days and longer nights than we would if it were mid-summer. The twelve hours and 57 minutes between sunrise and sunset is an hour and 38 minutes less heating time than we would have had on our longest day of the year.

On the other side of the ledger, we're in our third year of drought here in California, it's late enough in the growing season that even in a normal year we'd expect the top several feet of soil to be dry and the vines to be under high stress, and we had another heat event in July that already resulted in some losses.

However it shakes out, it's going to be a challenge, and our tools to deal with the heat are limited. The best option is to bring anything that's ready or nearly so into the cellar and get them into tanks or barrels where the outside temperature doesn't matter. Over the last two days, we've brought in nearly 47 tons of grapes, or roughly 10% of what we expect to do this entire harvest season, including these Grenache Blanc bins on our crushpad today:

Grenache Blanc on crushpad

We'll be continuing to bring in grapes through the wave, starting early in the pre-dawn hours with light towers and headlamps when it's still cool and continuing until probably only around 10am, when temperatures get high enough that we worry about the effects of oxidation on the newly harvested clusters. A big piece of what's coming in next will be Syrah, which is ready to go and looking amazing:

Syrah clusters

But there are grapes that are still a long way from being ready. Heck, there are grapes like Counoise that haven't even finished veraison. Harvesting those isn't a viable option, and it's important to remember that even with this week's push we're still only about a third of the way through harvest. So we've been doing something you rarely see after veraison and turning on our irrigation lines in our most heat-sensitive varieties, trying to give them the reserves they need to withstand the heat. I posted about this on Twitter today:

We're trying to avoid raisining, where the vines activate a self-defense mechanism by pulling the liquid out of their berries and using it to replace what they're losing to evaporation and photosynthesis. The resulting hard, sour raisins won't reinflate, costing us production. This Mourvedre cluster shows both that there are grapes still finishing veraison and a few of these premature raisins, the result of an earlier heat wave in mid-July that caused modest losses in Mourvedre:

Mourvedre cluster with raisining

Those two options are pretty much our entire toolkit, at least in the short term. And, of course, we don't even have one of those options on the 40% of our vineyard without irrigation infrastructure. In the longer term, the farming choices we make can help build the vines' resilience to heat and drought. Focusing on dry-farming builds deeper root systems, which have more reliable access to water and are less impacted by what's going on at the surface. Regenerative farming helps build the organic content of our soils, which then hold more moisture. And Biodynamics (along with the regenerative practices) produces more robust vines that have greater reserves to draw from. 

Fingers crossed, please, that it's enough. 


Veraison 2022 Sets the Stage for a Coin Flip: Will This Be Our Earliest Harvest Ever?

I got back this week from spending most of a month in Vermont to find a very different vineyard than the one I left. Instead of growing but bright green, pea-sized berries, the grapes have become full-sized and rainbow shades of purple, red, pink and green. This Grenache cluster is a great example of the diversity of color:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache 2

Veraison, if you're unfamiliar with the term, is a physiological stage of grape development where the berries stop accumulating mass and start accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin.

Although this week has been an exception, the last month of the 2022 growing season has been warm. In the 35 days since the calendar turned to summer, our average high temperature has been 93.5°F. Eight days have topped 100°F, with another fifteen topping out in the 90's. Just one day failed to make it into the 80's. But July is almost always hot in Paso Robles, and that average is less than what we saw in July 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2021. And I was pleased with the vigor and health of the vines in my rambles around it today and yesterday. July is typically when the vineyard starts showing signs of the marathon that is the growing season. Not this year, or at least not yet. But it's definitely been warm enough to push veraison into high gear.

We spotted our first color in the vineyard on July 12th. Now, two weeks later, Syrah is moving fast, and the others getting started. I thought it would be fun to give you a visual tour. I'll start with Syrah, as usual the first Rhone red to enter version and the fastest to change colors. The cluster on the right is a little ahead of average, mostly red but still with a few green berries finishing up, while the cluster on the left is more typical:

Veraison 2022 - Syrah

Grenache is next in line. I think it's the most beautiful grape in nearly every season, but in veraison it outdoes itself, with the berries turning jewel-like in the sun. Look for lots more Grenache pictures in the next month, as we get further along than the 10% veraison I'd estimate we have now:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache

Mourvedre, even though it's typically the last to be harvested, is the next-most-advanced, well further into veraison than Counoise and only slightly behind Grenache. Note though that this doesn't mean it's going to be picked any time soon; it often has relatively early veraison and then just spends a long time in this last stage of ripening. This cluster is one of the more advanced ones, and I'd estimate it's only at 5% veraison overall:

Veraison 2022 - Mourvedre

Finally, Counoise. It took some searching to find any color. This cluster, with a few pink-purple berries in a sea of green, is about as advanced as it gets. I'd estimate we're around 1% on Counoise, overall:

Veraison 2022 - Counoise

Although it's less exciting visually than with reds, white grapes too go through veraison. The grapes turn from green to something a little yellower, and soften and start to get sweet. They also become more translucent. The process happens over a continuum as it does in the reds. Viognier goes first, followed by Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc, with Picpoul and Roussanne bringing up the rear. You can see the slightly golden tone that this Viognier cluster is starting to pick up:

Veraison 2022 - Viognier

It's important to note that while the veraison posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be a week or two so before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and more than a month until the last clusters of later grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise have finished coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying and the inherent tendencies of the different varieties. For example, a consistently cool August in 2018 gave us more than six weeks between veraison and our first harvest on September 10th, while last year's consistent heat and low yields gave us just a five week interim. The last decade is compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 41
2018 July 29 September 10 43
2019 July 30 September 4 36
2020 July 21 August 25 35
2021 July 21 August 24 34
2022 July 12 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (34 to 45 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 15th and August 26th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall, influenced as well by the crop levels, since lighter crops ripen faster than heavier ones. It looks like we're seeing medium crop levels this year, better than last year but not at the levels we saw in a year like 2017, which suggests we'd trend toward the earlier end of the range above, but maybe not challenge last year's record-short duration. Still, we have a chance of besting 2016 for our earliest-ever beginning to harvest. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. That progress is already happening fast, and the view in the vineyard is changing daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram pages. I spent some time yesterday with our Viticulturist Jordy Lonborg, and he's excited about the vines' health. It looks like we lost a little crop to sunburn during the heat spikes, but nothing crippling, and the vigor in the vineyard should give the vines the ability to make a strong finishing push. In a few weeks, we'll start sampling the early varieties, looking for the moment when the flavors are fully developed and the balance of sugars and acids ideal. In the cellar, we'll use that time to finish bottling the last of our 2020 reds, refill those barrels and foudres with our newly-blended 2021s, and get started cleaning and checking all the tanks and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.  

So, now we wait, and enjoy the show. We may not know exactly how much time is on that timer, but we can hear it starting to tick.

Veraison 2022 - Syrah Horizontal


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.