Budbreak 2020: The World May Be Crazy, but the Vineyard is Right on Time

This winter has very much been one of phases. November was chilly but almost entirely dry, which got us into dormancy early but put us a bit behind in cover crop growth. December was very wet, with 6.66 inches of rain and 13 days with measurable precipitation. January and February stayed chilly (18 below-freezing nights) but saw very little precipitation. The sun and the saturated soil from our wet December produced a vineyard that grew greener by the day, but since wet soils hold temperature better than dry ones, raised the specter of very early bud break if we didn't get more rain soon. But then March turned wet and remained cold, dropping soil temperatures and keeping the vineyard in stasis for longer than I thought possible. The rainfall-by-month graph for the winter so far shows the whipsaw nature of what we've seen:

Winter 2019-20 Rainfall by Month

The vineyard's long period of dormancy is ending. The proliferation of California poppies are an indicator that the lengthening days and the warm sun will begin to wake up the vines:

Poppies and Dormant Vines March 2020

Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf.  It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years.  Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest.  And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Grenache, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Syrah, Marsanne, Tannat, and Picpoul, and finally, often three weeks or more after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. We only have budbreak in Viognier, the two Grenaches, and (bizarrely) the very top of one Mourvedre block. The below photo is Grenache:

Budbreak in Grenache 2020 Square

This year is later than many years last decade, and a month later than our record-early 2016, but it's only about average for what we'd have expected historically. When we saw first budbreak the last dozen years gives a good overview:

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

It's important to note that the vast majority of the vineyard is still dormant. I was only able to find leaves in our earliest-sprouting grapes and only at the tops of the hills, which are warmer than the valleys, where cold air settles. And even where it's begun, with the exception of the earliest Grenache blocks, all there is to see is swollen buds like the one below, from the Haas Vineyard Pinot Noir:

Swollen Bud March 2020

It will be at least another few weeks before we see sprouting in late-emerging grapes like Counoise or Roussanne, or in low-lying areas. This Mourvedre block is one of many that show no signs of sprouting yet:

Dormant Head Trained Mourvedre March 2020

Why does budbreak happen when it does? It's mostly a question of soil temperatures. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) are spurred by rising soil temperatures to come out of dormancy and begin their growing season. Evolutionarily, plants are trying to balance competing goals: to sprout early enough to achieve maximum carbohydrate generation from photosynthesis (i.e. ripen their fruit so animals eat it and distribute the seeds) while staying dormant long enough to avoid suffering damage to their reproductive prospects through frost.

Frost is on our minds. 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 I'm thankful that it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk. 

You might think that earlier budbreaks increase your risks of frost. 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. That's unlike, say, Vermont, where I grew up, where it always seemed to me that each week's weather could just as easily have been generated by a random weather generator.

That said, looking at the long-term forecast offers some hope. We're supposed to get one more chilly late-winter storm next weekend, but it doesn't seem likely to be cold enough to damage the tops of our hills, and it doesn't seem like we will have progressed far enough for anything else to have sprouted. After that, we're expecting drier weather as the storm track shifts north. But there's a long way to go.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rapid changes in the vineyard, and the hope that always comes with the emergence of new buds. Please join me in welcoming the 2020 vintage.

Budbreak in Grenache with Owl Box


A Walk through the Vineyard, Poised between Winter and Spring

Even as we have implemented major changes to the business side of what we do, the vineyard continues its march through the seasons. The grapevines don't know that there's a shelter at home order. The cover crops aren't interested in quarantine details. Instead, they're paying attention to signals like soil temperature and hours of sun as their systems make the annual determination as to whether it's time to come out of dormancy yet.

We've finished the winter pruning work we needed to do, and we have six weeks or so before we're far enough into the growing season to need a large crew working on anything (the next big push will be shoot thinning). So, if we had to pick a time when it doesn't hurt us much to cut back on vineyard work and wait this out, this is a pretty good one.

I took a walk through the vineyard on Thursday to get a sense of where things were. After our nearly-entirely-dry January and February (just one storm, 1.11 inches total rainfall) it's clear that the rain we've received so far in March (4.16" across 13 different days) has made a significant difference. The ground is saturated. The cover crops have doubled in size. And the generally cool daytime temperatures (just 5 days this month that made it out of the low-60s, and only one in the last two weeks) and chilly nights (four have dropped below freezing) have delayed budbreak to a more-or-less normal time frame. Although it can't be long now, in my walk I didn't see anything that had pushed buds, even at the very tops of the hills and the very earliest varieties like Vermentino, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc.

What did I see? The wildflower season just beginning, with wild mustard the most precocious:

Dormant Grenache with wildflowers

I took one shot (through our deer fence) of the sign pointing to our tasting room if you were to approach the vineyard on Adelaida Road from the north. If you are used to seeing Paso Robles in summertime when everything is golden and in sharp relief, the softer springtime contours can be surprising.

Tablas Creek sign with wildflowers

The dormant gray vines (Vermentino here) make for a great contrast this time of year with the green cover crop and the early wildflowers:

Pruned Vermentino with wildflowers 2

The day, like most of last week, saw a shower pass through. You can see the clouds hanging over the vineyard in this shot, looking down over our oldest Counoise block:

Cover crop in Counoise

And finally, a shot looking up from more or less the middle of the vineyard over one of our Grenache blocks, a study in green, blue, and white:

Looking up Grenache block with clouds

If you'd like something more immersive than the still photos, I took a 20-second video in the middle of the vineyard too. I highly recommend turning on your volume.

Although we're not able to welcome you here in person right now, I'll look forward to sharing what the vineyard looks like more regularly over coming weeks. That way, you can follow along. And if there are things you particularly want to see or know more about, please leave a comment. Meanwhile, stay safe out there.


The Vineyard After a Wet December and a Sunny January is Impossibly Green

Last week, I commented on Twitter that we were entering the season where Paso Robles is absurdly beautiful everywhere you look. Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself.

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December's rain and a mostly sunny January have combined to produce an explosion of cover crop growth, and everything is the intense yellow-green that winter in California produces, so different from the summer gold. There are clouds in the sky to provide contrast to the brilliant blues, the angle of the sun is lower, and you feel like you can hear the grasses growing, making the most of their brief time when moisture is readily available. This morning seemed like a good time to get out on a ramble through the vineyard to document how things look.

Our flock of sheep, if you visit this week, is hard to miss. They've been moving up the hillside behind the winery (which we call "Mount Mourvedre" because that's what's planted there), spending just a day or two in each long rectangular block before being moved up the hill to new (yes, greener) pastures. From just inside our front gate:

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You may notice, looking past the solar panels, that there's a horizontal line a few rows below where the sheep are now. That's the boundary line between where the sheep were until this morning and the new section they just got into. We keep them in any one block no more than 48 hours, so they graze evenly but don't overgraze, and the grasses have a chance to regrow and build more organic matter this winter. Looking down the electric fence line makes it even clearer. The downhill section has been grazed already, while the flock is just getting started on the new uphill section they're in now:

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The cover crop, in areas the sheep haven't gotten to yet, is a little behind where it often is at this time of year because of how late the rain first arrived. But it's making up for lost time quickly, and is about four inches think already. You can see it clearly in this shot, looking uphill through our oldest Grenache block toward some endposts that mark the beginning of a north-facing Marsanne section. When I walked up the hill, there was a turkey vulture on each post, every one basking in the morning sunshine:

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Another view, focused on the vultures more than the green:

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Turning around and looking down the hill, through the Grenache block and over the Counoise, Mourvedre, Tannat, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc sections, gives you a sense of the patchwork of vineyard contours, as well as how green everything is. The more gray-green foliage of the olives stands out clearly.

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While we needed this sunny January to get the cover crop growing and accumulating biomass, it has put us a bit behind where we'd hope we'd be in terms of rainfall. With the month almost over and no real signs of wet weather for the next couple of weeks, we're only at about 72% of normal rainfall to date. There's still plenty of winter to go, and plenty of moisture in the ground, but we're hoping for a wet February and March. For the winter so far:

Rainfall Graph 2019-20 vs Average as of January

Still, none of us are too worried. We've gotten enough rain to this point to have plenty of fodder for our sheep. There's lots more winter to come. And the sunsets? Those are a very nice reward.

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I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you haven't visited Paso Robles in the winter, you're missing out. We'll see you soon.


Six inches of rain in two weeks begins the vineyard's winter transformation

California, when it rains, is a paradise. The landscape transforms from stark browns and golds to something softer, with blurred edges. Green appears, seemingly overnight, as grasses and broadleaf seeds that have been waiting for moisture sprout and push leaves above the surface. Puffy white clouds appear in the sky, which has unbroken blue for months at a time in the summer. The images aren't the same as those that summertime visitors love, but for me, they're even better. I'll share a few of my favorites from a vineyard ramble this morning:

Oak tree in the vineyard with fog

You can see that higher up in the vineyard, where this Counoise block is, we still have leaves on some of the vines. Although we've had several nights where our lower-lying areas have seen frost, we haven't had the hard freeze that will force the vineyard into dormancy top to bottom yet. This lower section is more representative. I particularly like the green that has already appeared:

Green grass and fog

The total lack of moisture in the summer has its own appeal, but the fog does give a better sense of distance, settling in the undulations of the hills:

Green grass rolling vineyard

The rain did us the favor of cleaning off our solar panels. Their modern regularity makes for a nice contrast with the sky and landscape:

Solar panels vineyard truck and blue sky

The rain itself came in nearly ideal distribution. Up through November 25th we'd seen zero precipitation this winter. In the 13 days since, we've had measurable rainfall 12 of the 13. But it was generally modest. We only topped one inch once (1.47", on December 4th). Five other days saw between one-half and one inch. And very wet days tended to be followed by days with less rainfall, allowing everything to soak in:

Rainfall Graph

So far, for the winter, we've totaled 5.88", which puts us at about 125% of normal at this point in the rainy season. Given where we were a month ago, that's pretty encouraging. It's also some validation to the research I did after that blog, which suggested that a dry beginning to the winter was only slightly correlated with a dry winter

What's next for us? A week, more or less, of sunny, dry weather. That's perfect, as it will give the new green cover crop a chance to get some growth in before the next rains come. After that, it's anyone's guess. Long-term predictions are still for a slightly drier than normal winter, but I feel a lot better about things given what we've banked already. As the mud on my boots suggests, there's plenty of moisture to work with, for now.

Muddy boots

I'll leave you with my favorite photo of the morning, sun partially obscured by the fog, solar panels in the foreground, olive trees and vineyard truck in the middle ground, and vineyard sloping away down toward Las Tablas Creek in the background. The fog has since burned off, but I look forward to more moisture over the coming days.

Solar panels vineyard truck and fog


Does a dry fall mean a dry winter season? Less than you might think.

Last week, I wrote about the dry, cool beginning to winter that we're seeing this year in Paso Robles. In my research for the piece, I made a surprising and reassuring discovery. It turned out that having a totally dry October, as we did this year, didn't have any predictive effect on our future rainfall for those winters. There were five such Octobers in the 23 years since we installed our weather station in 1996, and for the rest of the rain season (November-May) we averaged the same 22.2" of rain that we did in the 18 not-totally-dry Octobers. Yes, we missed out on the rain we didn't get that month (an average of 1.5") but it didn't appear that the conditions that produced these dry months lingered in any meaningful way later into the winter.

That got me wondering: was that true for future months? Did low rainfall in October and November mean we were likely to see a drier December-May? Did low rainfall October-December mean drier January-May? Or were the weather patterns truly independent, as my first-pass analysis last week suggested? It turned out that a dry month or months does have some predictive effect, but it's less than you might think. I'll present my findings below, but first a note on my methodology.

I decided first that using "totally dry" as my measuring point wouldn't be reasonable. We do of course have winter months without any rainfall, but after October they're rare. So, I decided that for a period to qualify as "dry", we'd need to have seen less than half of our annual average winter rainfall to date. So, for the period through October, "dry" meant less than 0.85" of total rainfall since July. For the period through November, "dry" meant less than 1.8" of rainfall since July. And for the period through December, "dry" meant less than 4.1" of rainfall since July. This does mean that the results are correlated, since this is a cumulative total, but it seemed better than counting a winter like 2009-10 as "dry" through November because we received less than 1/10" of rain in November, while ignoring that we received a nearly 10" storm in October.

So, what predictive effect does a dry early season have? About 15%, in my calculations. Here's a quick recap of the averages. At the bottom I've added in some graphs that highlight how the dry early seasons have played out.

Period Avg Rain, Rest of Winter Avg Rain (Dry Years) Avg Rain (Wet Years) # of Dry Years
Through October 22.49 20.84 24.28 12
Through November 20.49 16.92 22.05 7
Through December 16.04 14.31 16.52 5

As you might expect, the data is noisiest when you're looking at early-season results, both because there are more dry years (12) and you'd expect to have received a lower percentage of your total precipitation. In the below graph, I've marked years that met my definition of dry through October with orange columns. Wetter years are blue:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through October

While the averages are still somewhat predictive, there are some very wet winters that followed dry early seasons, including last year. Looking at years that are dry through the end of November shows a more obvious correlation:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through November

In the seven years where we had less than 50% of our average rainfall at the end of November, we only saw one year where we recovered to even hit our long-term average (2005-06). Some of that is the lower average future rainfall (23% less) but a lot of it is that we'd already gotten through enough of the rainy season that the difference between what we've banked in a dry year (1.2") and our average from our wet years (4.7") starts to become more significant. Looking at the data through the end of December doesn't change the picture that much:

Wet and dry winters at Tablas Creek  through December

It's probably unsurprising that when it's been dry through December, we're likely to be looking at a dry winter. But even more than in the previous chart, the biggest difference isn't in the future rainfall we'd expect (we received an average of 13% less rain January-June in those years that were drier through December) but in how much rain we've banked, or not. We'd normally expect to have received 8.17" of rain through the end of December, a little more than a third of our annual total. In the five notably dry years, we'd only accumulated an average of 2.7" to date, while in the other eighteen years we'd averaged nearly four times that already: 9.6".

What does this mean for us this winter? In practical terms, not much. Like always, we're at the mercy of the weather patterns, and what we've seen so far this fall has been consistently dry, with a persistent area of high pressure diverting storms well north of us. But for the first time, forecasts are starting to sound more hopeful, and it looks like there's a chance that this pattern will break down by the end of the month: 

For all that, I feel like the results of my digging into the weather details have done some good for my state of mind. Each week without rain at this time of year feels long. And as nice as it is to be able to go out and enjoy the beautiful sunny afternoons, I enjoy them less because of this nagging feeling that it's wrong, and we really need the rain. Knowing that the predictive effects of past early season dry spells have been modest, and that we have 90% of our rainy season in front of us (and fully two-thirds after January 1st) is a good reminder to be patient. Storms will be coming. Fingers crossed that they'll come soon.

Dark clouds over Tablas Creek Nov 2015


A Dry, Chilly Beginning to the 2019 Winter Season

Those of you who have been following California's recurring struggles with fire won't be surprised to hear that it's been dry. Record low relative humidity has been a major contributing factor to the wildfires that have raged in both northern and southern California. Here in Paso Robles, we haven't seen the same high winds that fueled this year's terrible fire season, and one somewhat comforting fact is that those sorts of wind events are quite rare here, as the Santa Ana winds that affect southern California don't often make it this far north, while the Diablo winds that affect northern California don't typically make it this far south. Still, it's been really dry, with no rain yet, relative humidity dropping into the mid-single digits the last few days, and the lowest dew point I can ever remember seeing (-3°F) on Halloween. There have been several mornings over the last couple of weeks where I've gone out to my car in the morning, had it be below freezing, and yet have no frost on the windshield because it's just been too dry.

What may not be so obvious from the news coverage is that it's been quite cold so far as we've transitioned from fall to winter. We've already had several frost nights in our lower-lying spots, and the vines are mostly in dormancy. Check out the difference in the look of one of our old Roussanne blocks from a month ago:

Roussanne block October 2019

To today:

Roussanne Block November 2019

And we haven't even been the coldest spot in Paso Robles. If you look at the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather summary for October 31st (the day with the amazingly low dew point) you can see that there were several local weather stations that measured lows around 20°F and one that even dropped into the teens. And yes, even on this day with some very cold mornings, we had warm afternoons. The diurnal temperature swings, always big here in Paso Robles, reach extreme (50+°F) levels during this season:

Weather Summary - October 31 2019

Even with the cold nights, the hilltops are still showing nice fall colors, and are likely to until we see a hard freeze. This photo, of one of our Syrah blocks, is just up the hill from the Roussanne block I photographed above:

2019 Fall Foliage - Syrah

How unusual is all this, and what does it mean for our prospects for a wet winter? Not particularly, and not much. We see our first rainfall of the winter by the end of October about three-quarters of the time. The rest of the years, which have included 1996, 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2017, it's been dry into November. A lack of early rainfall has not particularly impacted what the rest of the winter has looked like; those five years have averaged 22.5 inches of winter rainfall, only about an inch and a half different from the 24.2 inch 20-year average. As the 1.5 inch difference is exactly what we've averaged in our last twenty Octobers, there's essentially no correlation between a dry October and a dry winter. That's a reassuring thought.

While we'd like it wet, the cold is a good thing, as it forces the vines into dormancy and keeps them from expending extra energy at a time of year when there's no fruit to ripen. And we'll take what we can get, while we wait for the long-term forecast to show some hope for rain. We'd like to get our cover crop growing, so our sheep have something to eat. And rain would put to bed any lingering worries about this year's wildfire season. There no rain forecast for the next two weeks: more dry weather, with sunny, warm days in the upper 70s and low 80s, with chilly nights dropping to around freezing. But while our vines would like to usher in the rainy season, that sounds like pretty ideal weather for people. If you're coming to Paso Robles between now and Thanksgiving, it sounds like you can expect conditions to be pretty great.

Meanwhile, we'll look forward to the greens, yellows, and oranges of the harvest season transitioning to the softer browns of fall, like the Mourvedre block below. It may not have autumn's drama, but it's beautiful in its own right.

Late fall 2019 Mourvedre


Harvest 2019 Recap: What's Usually a Marathon Turns Out to Be a Sprint

Last Wednesday, as I was on the road heading to the (remarkable) New York Wine Experience, the cellar team brought in the last lot of grapes from the 2019 harvest, some head-trained Counoise from our Scruffy Hill block. This capped a 40-day sprint: our shortest harvest in 18 years, and longer only in our history than the tiny frost-reduced crop of 2001. That 40 days is a full two weeks shorter than our average this millennium. But unlike in some of the other attenuated harvests, we didn't have to pick because there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat. No, it was just that the consistently warm, sunny weather that we've seen since early August meant that everything was ready. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Cellar team with last pick of 2019

Because the weather never forced us to pause, the breakdown of our workflow was nearly constant. After a slow start the last week of August and first two weeks of September (after which we sat at only 10% complete) starting September 16th we picked nearly every day until the end of harvest. You can see steadiness of the vintage in the chart below (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Final Harvest Graph

Yields defy an easy explanation. We ended up down overall about 8% from 2018, but while overall we were almost exactly at our long-time average, the picture depends a lot on which grape you look at. I'll dive into that below. But what stood out to me was that although we had great rainfall last winter, and exceptional vine health all summer, we didn't see the high yields that typically come with that. The complete picture:

Grape 2019 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2018
Viognier 17.4 18.2 -4.4%
Marsanne 12.3 11.8 +4.2%
Grenache Blanc 28.3 43.6 -35.1%
Picpoul Blanc 8.6 9.1 -5.5%
Vermentino 24.7 17.9 +38.0%
Roussanne 46.1 32.6 +41.4%
Other whites 7.8 6.1 +27.9%
Total Whites 145.2 139.3 +4.2%
Grenache 51.4 74.3 -30.8%
Syrah 42.5 44.7 -4.9%
Mourvedre 49.6 64.4 -23.0%
Tannat 19.0 19.8 -4.0%
Counoise 20.0 16.0 +25.0%
Other reds 5.6 3.8 +47.4%
Total Reds 188.1 223.0 -15.7%
Total 333.3 362.3  -8.0%

Average yields ended up at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average. Other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages: 2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016. As to why we saw only average yields despite the ample rainfall that we saw last winter, I blame a handful of small things: we saw some shatter in our Grenache blocks due to cool weather at flowering; we decided that we'd been hanging too much crop on our Grenache Blanc and were more aggressive in thinning, and (the only one of these which is troubling) Mourvedre, which didn't suffer from shatter, still hung a small crop. We'll be spending some time in the slower season to come trying to come up with a program to reverse this development, as we've done successfully in recent years with Roussanne. Speaking of Roussanne, it's clear from the increased Roussanne crop that the health that we noticed all growing season in our Roussanne was reflected in the quantity we harvested. It was also reflected in the fact that we didn't need to make nearly as many passes through our Roussanne blocks. It's the first time in a while that we've had extra lines on our harvest chalkboard, as we picked 95 lots this year (20 fewer than 2018). And that's including our first-ever picks of Bourboulenc, Cinsaut, and Vaccarese, noted in all-caps and with extra stars on the board:

Finished 2019 Harvest Chalkboard

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
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

You'll note that 2019's sugars saw a small decline from the past two years while the average pH maintained the level we were very happy with last year. The main culprit on the lower harvest sugars were Marsanne and Roussanne, both of which came in, on average, below 20° Brix. That's not a problem with Marsanne -- we typically love it around 12% alcohol -- but it suggests that we'll have a range of Roussannes, including those riper lots that are more likely to be appropriate for Esprit Blanc, and those that may be better suited for the Cotes Blanc or Patelin Blanc. I wouldn't be surprised to see both those wines with a higher than normal percentage of Roussanne in 2019.

The continued lower average pH is a great sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vineyard was under at harvest time.

I had a sense, from living here and evaluating what I felt week by week, that we were really looking at two distinct weather patterns: a fairly cool one that lasted until the end of July, and then a consistent, warm pattern that took over in early August and lasted until mid-October. And the degree days that we measured this 2019 growing season support that, more or less. The chart below shows the unusually chilly May, the moderate June and July, and then the warmer-than-n0rmal (but not scorching) August and September. Note that October's information is for the first 16 days, as we picked our last block on October 16th:

Degree Days 2019 vs Normal

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 40 days -- was our shortest since 2001. That's noteworthy enough. But just as unusual was the sequencing of the different grapes. The cool weather in May seems to have set back the early grapes somewhat. Viognier -- which started coming in September 7th -- and Vermentino, Syrah, and Grenache Blanc -- all of which saw their first estate picks September 16th -- were delayed about two weeks compared to our average this decade. This delay in our early grapes led me to conclude mistakenly that we were looking at a later-than-normal harvest. But the late grapes, which flower in June and do the bulk of their ripening in the August-September period where we saw ideal conditions, were actually picked early. We saw our first picks of Roussanne on September 6th and Counoise on September 12th, both three weeks or so before we'd normally expect them. Grenache Noir, which usually lags behind Syrah by a couple of weeks, came in right on its heels, just one day later this year. And we were totally done with Roussanne by October 7th, which is really unusual.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and his response was, "the ferments have been wonderfully slow and measured. It is early for me to say just what to expect from the wines themselves but the whites seem aromatic and quite showy, pretty and delicate wines. Reds have nice rich color and are solid in structure while yet being quite plush and rich in texture." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi added that it's "a vintage marked by balance." We'll know more, of course, 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, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And the late-season sun shining through the presses make the afternoon warmth that much sweeter: 

Mourvedre in the press

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast). Meanwhile, we're putting the vineyard to bed, seeding cover crop, and getting the animals back into the vineyard, to clean up any second crop clusters still on the vines and start spreading manure in preparation for the rainy season. Even in years like this when there's no inclement weather during harvest, it's still a relief when everything is in tanks and barrels, and you just don't have to worry about rain, or frost, or anything else. Whenever winter feels like coming, we'll be ready. And that's something to celebrate, in and of itself.


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

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

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

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

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

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

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

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

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed….


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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrah mid-July

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

Viognier mid-July

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

Mourvedre mid-July

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

Grenache mid-July

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

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

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