We are headed for our latest harvest since 2011. And maybe our latest ever!

I got back this week from three weeks in Vermont. I try to take that vacation each year, both because it's nice to get out of Paso Robles in what's usually our hottest month and because it's typically a quiet time of year in the vineyard and winery. The grapes are ripening, the wines we've decided on are getting blended, and we're getting the previous vintage into bottle. There aren't a lot of decisions to make. Typically, when I get back in late July, I find a vineyard transformed by at least the early stages of veraison, with purple starting to make its way into what is otherwise a sea of green. Not this year. Check out Syrah, typically the first to show color changes:

Syrah late July 2023

Not only is the Syrah not changing color, its berries aren't even full-size yet. Look at all that space in the clusters! Since it's usually a week or two between the berries reaching maximum size and them starting to change color, we're still weeks away. And it's not just Syrah. Let's take a run through the other key red grapes, in more or less the order in which we'd expect to see them harvested. Next would be Grenache:

Grenache late July 2023

Grenache is its usual beautiful self, and the berries are larger and rounder than what we're seeing in Syrah... but still hard, green, and sour. Nothing like the Grenache that I posted one year ago yesterday:

Veraison 2022 - Grenache 2

Mourvedre is usually next to go through veraison, though it takes more time than the others between veraison and harvest. Our Mourvedre berries are still small, which is unsurprising since we were still seeing the last stages of flowering at the summer solstice:

Mourvedre late July 2023

Finally, Counoise, which even in more precocious years I'd expect to still be all green in late July. This year's berries, though, still have a lot of growing to do before they can even think of starting to turn purple:

Counoise late July 2023
Over the last decade, the average date when we've noted our first veraison was July 21st, with a range between July 9th and July 30th. If I'm right and we were still three weeks out as of yesterday, that would put us at August 16th. That's nearly four weeks later than our recent average. 

How does this year stack up against the last two chilly growing seasons that we've experienced, back in 2010 and 2011? In 2010 we saw our first red berry on July 30th, and in 2011 it wasn't until August 5th. Could we possibly be two weeks later than our latest-ever vintage? Maybe that's unlikely. After all, most of the last month has been quite warm, and the recent trend seems to be diverging from the 2010-2011 trend lines. The below chart measures growing degree days by year, with the bold, dotted red line representing 2023:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023

Late ripening notwithstanding, the vineyard looks great. We're seeing outstanding vine health everywhere. This Syrah section, where we were doing a Biodynamic silica spray yesterday, is a great example:

Spraying Silica late July 2023

All the water that we got this winter has meant that our young vines are thriving. In this new Mourvedre block (which we've named the Santos Block after a much loved and deeply missed longtime member of our crew) you can see the two- and three-year-old Mourvedre vines looking green and happy:

Santos Block late July 2023

The older blocks that we've been working to regenerate, like this Syrah that we've been increasing our vine density through layering, are benefiting from the moisture in the soil too. You can see, if you look closely, how we've turned two healthy Syrah vines (the second and fifth from the left, as you look below) into five over the past few years, by burying the canes and letting them grow new roots:

IMG_5286
The reserves of moisture have allowed us to continue planting later in the year than we'd normally think ideal. That's been important because the nurseries too were impacted by the cold, wet winter and have been slow to get us material that's robust enough to plant. Just this week, we completed the year's plantings with Vermentino and Picpoul (pictured) at the base of Jewel Ridge. These vines will get a little supplemental water the first two years, and then will be on their own:

Planting Picpoul on Jewel Ridge late July 2023

Overall, it's becoming clear that we're looking at a year unlike any that we've seen in our recent history. But I find comfort and context in remembering that the growing season over the last decade has been shifted much earlier than what was historically considered normal, driven by climate change and eight dry years in ten. If we don't start harvest until mid-September and don't finish until early November, which is what I'm guessing at this point, we can have the confidence that the Paso Robles climate should make that possible. Look at years like 2005 (start date September 21st, end date November 7th) or 2010 (start date September 16th, end date November 13th) or 2011 (start date September 20th, end date November 9th), all of which gave us wines we loved.

Will we see our latest-ever veraison? That seems possible, maybe even likely. I think it's less likely, though, that we'll eclipse our latest-ever start or finish to harvest. There's ample warm weather on the horizon, unlike 2010 and 2011. The world's baseline climate is warmer than it was a dozen years ago. And we've become comfortable with harvesting at somewhat lower sugar levels than we were back in that earlier era. But if it does come to pass, we'll take solace in the fact that the vines have the health they need to make this marathon possible. And that as unusual as it seems in our recent context, it's more or less what we were expecting when we settled here three decades ago.

Now, just hoping el nino holds off until Thanksgiving... 


Summer Solstice Vineyard Tour: Late but Lovely in 2023

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the beginning of June felt like we'd been transported to Santa Barbara for some of their "June Gloom". That unusually cool, overcast weather lasted another week. But the last week has seen things start to feel more summer-like. Not the 100°F temperatures that some associate with summer in Paso Robles, thankfully, but at least sunny and in the upper 70s and low 80s. It's honestly been glorious, and we're feeling lucky that it's this late in the year and we haven't yet seen any oppressive heat.

I was feeling stir-crazy in my office today and with it being so beautiful out I decided to take a ramble around the vineyard. There was enough going on that I thought it would make a fun blog to share with all of you. First, to set the stage, a view looking down through our largest Mourvedre block over the winery and across Las Tablas Creek to Scruffy Hill and Jewel Ridge:

Solstice 2023 - Long View over Winery

We're excited about all the new vineyard blocks that we have going into the ground or coming into production. In addition to everything going into Jewel Ridge (some 25 acres that have been planted in the last couple of years) we've made the decision to pull out a few underperforming blocks on our original property so we can start fresh. One such block, formerly virus-weakened Roussanne, is being replanted to own-rooted Mourvedre on wider spacing, to help reduce the stress levels on this notoriously stress-prone grape. Note the 33% wider spacing compared to the 20-year-old Grenache block on the left, the higher irrigation lines so sheep can graze more easily, and the amazing sky:

Solstice 2023 - New block

Another Mourvedre block that we planted last year (named the Santos Block after one of our long-time and deeply missed late vineyard crew members) is growing well and looking healthy. We won't get a crop off it this year, but next year is looking likely:

Solstice 2023 - Santos block

The Syrah block where we've been experimenting with grapevine layering is looking amazing. Both the mother and child vines have leafy, healthy canopies and are carrying fruit. First, an overview photo of a mother vine (center) with canes buried on either side to produce child vines:

Solstice 2023 - Layering Landscape

And second, a closeup of the cane descending into the ground (foreground) and reemerging thicker and healthy in what had been a missing vine position. You can see the new Syrah clusters hanging down:

Solstice 2023 - Layering Closeup

Speaking of clusters, despite our worries about shatter due to the chilly spring, we've seen a good fruit set this year, though we're something like a month behind where we've been most recent years. Below, see Grenache (left) and Syrah (right). Normally these berries would be pea-size or larger and starting to squish together into clusters:

Solstice 2023 - Grenache

Solstice 2023 - Syrah

There may be some unusual sequencing this year. Counoise (below left) is usually one of the latest grapes to flower. This year it's ahead of the Syrah. And Mourvedre (below right) is just finishing up flowering. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that we're looking at mid-September before we're seriously into harvest, which would be our latest start since 2011.

Solstice 2023 - Counoise

Solstice 2023 - Mourvedre
Once challenge for us this year has been that with all the rain, the cover crops keep re-sprouting even after we've grazed and mowed them. But the flip side of that challenge is that even in our less vigorous blocks we're noting remarkable vigor and vine health. You can see both issues in the below photo looking up our oldest Counoise block:

Solstice 2023 - No Till Counoise

The grapevines and the cover crops aren't the only plants excited about winter rains. The olive trees are as covered with blossoms as any of us can ever remember:

Solstice 2023 - Olive flowering

I'll leave you with one last photo, of one of our handsome head-trained Grenache vines from the western edge of our property. I feel like you can positively see the health of the year bursting out of the vine's pores: 

Solstice 2023 - Head-trained Grenache

So, that's the report from the vineyard, as of mid-June. Late, but looking great. Next stop: veraison.


Since when does Paso Robles get "May grey" and "June gloom"? Welcome to 2023.

If you live in California, you're not going to be surprised by this update. But it's been chilly so far this year. Sure, the winter made headlines, with record-breaking rains and cold temperatures. But even since then it hasn't exactly felt like sunny California. After a more-or-less normal April, we've gone back to a weather pattern in much of May and June that feels more like March -- or Mendocino -- than midsummer. Today we've had a heavy overcast as an unusual late-season low pressure system drifts over our area. This is not a sky that you expect to see in conjunction with this landscape:

Looking west June 5

It's not just the lack of sun. Since May 1st, temperatures here averaged nearly 7°F lower than normal, with only 12 days above seasonal highs and 22 below:

Daily High Temps 2023 vs Average

The cool pattern looks likely to persist through at least the middle of the month and perhaps longer, as it's the result of longer-term phenomena (static high pressure systems over the sub-arctic and low-pressure over the sub-tropics off the coast of California). For a more in-depth explanation, I recommend Daniel Swain's Weather West blog and Twitter feed:

The last six weeks or so have been characterized by a deep marine layer and on-shore flow, which has meant that even our warmer days have usually started out foggy. That's not unusual in the early spring here, but it's typically not the case even by early May. And having deep gray clouds over lush green grapevines in early June is even more unusual:

Terret Noir and Stormy Skies June 5

The net result has been that the growing season, which got off to a slow start before catching up a bit in mid-May, has fallen further behind again. We're now something like a couple of weeks behind average, and more like three or four weeks behind most recent years. For a good comparison, check out the blog I published June 3rd, 2022 about fruit set, with pea-size berries in Grenache. By contrast, Grenache is still in mid-flowering today:

Flowering June 5

Our biggest worry right now is that cool, breezy weather isn't ideal for berry fertilization, and raises the risk of shatter. But no one I talk to is particularly concerned. It hasn't been all that windy (the last month has had only one day with a top wind gust over 20mph), we've had warmer days interspersed between the chilly ones, and it hasn't rained. Even if we do get a passing shower tonight or tomorrow, it doesn't look like it will be much, or that it will stick around for long. Plus, everyone is seeing what we are: unusual vigor in the vineyards thanks to all our winter rain, with large clusters and plenty of leaf area. If we lose a small percentage of that crop, we can afford that better than we would have been able to the last few years.

Finally, there's plenty of runway left in the growing season. We've gotten used to starting to pick in August and finishing by mid-October. But in the 2000s it was more normal that we'd start in mid-September and finish in early November. In Paso Robles that's not a huge risk, since the rainy season doesn't usually start in earnest until around Thanksgiving. That's a big part of why we chose this location. So if we need to wait, we wait. There are even benefits to doing so, as the grapes will spend longer on the vines and we're more likely to be picking in cooler weather.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the unusual backdrop to our vineyard activities. "May grey" and "June gloom" aren't normal features of Paso Robles weather. But it seems like in 2023 we're getting a taste of both.

Cinsaut and Stormy Skies June 5


Flowering 2023: So Far, So Good

This past weekend was the Paso Robles Wine Festival, our unofficial end to frost season. It was lovely and warm, and I dove into our pool as soon as I got home. And yet most of the questions that I got from guests at the festival were about our winter, along the lines of "how did you withstand the crazy rains this year?". That's a good reminder of the slow dissemination of news, as well as the staying power of striking video images. But we're well into the growing season, and things are moving fast in the vineyard. And so it was with anticipation that I took a walk around the vineyard yesterday afternoon. When I got to the top of our tallest hill, I found flowering in our Viognier:

Flowering 2023 - Viognier 1

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. And there is variation between vineyard blocks as well, with cooler, lower-lying areas a week or two behind the same grapes at the tops of our hills. The only other grape that I could find flowering in was Grenache from another top-of-hill block:

Flowering 2023 - Grenache 1

Flowering marks the rough quarter-pole of the growing season. There's a lot more year to come than in the rear-view mirror, but it's still a point at which you can start to make comparisons to other vintages. Doing so provides more support for our assessment that 2023 is looking like something of a throwback year, more like what we saw in the 2000's and early 2010's than what we've seen most of the last decade. Since the beginning of April we've had an above-average number of frost nights and days that don't get out of the 60s, and a roughly average number of days that top 90°F, and a below-average number of growing degree days (a rough number of hours that are warm enough for the grapevines to photosynthesize). The first 52 days of the growing season compared to the same dates the past dozen years:

Year Degree Days Days > 90°F Days < 70°F Nights < 32°F
2011 383 0 24 4
2012 496 5 15 3
2013 615 9 12 1
2014 553 5 16 0
2015 378 0 26 0
2016 494 2 14 0
2017 517 6 17 0
2018 454 0 21 1
2019 410 0 25 0
2020 500 2 20 2
2021 499 2 13 2
2022 554 6 13 3
Average 2011-2022 488 3.1 18 1.3
2023 470 4 21 4

As always, though, the devil is in the details. It was so chilly the first quarter of 2023 that the frost nights we saw this April came with low-lying vineyard blocks still dormant and therefore not at risk. That's great. The 90+ days were only barely into the 90s (top temperature: 93°F) and in every case the low the following night dropped into the 40s. That's great too. So the vines have had a good runway to catch up a bit after their late start, and in our estimate they have. From the roughly three weeks later than normal that we saw 2023's budbreak, we've probably made up half of that deficit.

Flowering is the second of the four viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically beginning late March or early April, and lasting three weeks or so)
  • Flowering (typically beginning mid-May, lasting a month or so)
  • Veraison (typically beginning late July or early August, lasting as much as 6 weeks)
  • Harvest (typically beginning late August or early September, lasting two months or so)

You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given we saw flowering begin the second week of May, we're likely to be enjoying the intoxicating scent of bloom until the sometime in mid-June.

What do we want now? We're hoping 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. The Paso Robles weather forecast suggests that we're entering a little cooldown that should last us through the work week, and then temperatures returning to normal levels in the upper 70s and low 80s by this coming weekend. There is no rain expected, or any unusual wind. That bodes well. 

So far, so good. Full steam ahead.

Flowering 2023 - Grenache 2


Are tasting room sales really falling off a cliff? Not exactly.

On Monday when I got into the office I was greeted with an alarming headline from WineBusiness.com, the wine trade's most-read publication: Are Direct to Consumer Wine Sales Falling off a Cliff? This headline was based on a report published by Community Benchmark, a company that aggregates winery tasting and sales data to provide insights to wineries, regional associations, and wine media. It had already gotten some high-profile attention over the weekend, with industry guru Paul Mabray presenting it as evidence on Twitter that wineries need to be thinking about other ways of customer acquisition beyond their tasting room:

It's a scary thought, that tasting room visitation was down 22% in March and 21% YTD across the nine regions Community Benchmark covers. And our own tasting room traffic was down 22% in March, exactly on trend with the broader community. But I think there's good reason to expect that data to improve, and fast. After the coldest, wettest winter in the last three decades, as the calendar turned from March to April, spring arrived here in California. But March was definitely more wintery than spring-like:

Winter Rainfall by Month vs Average 2022-23

There weren't many days that weren't rainy, and even those days weren't conducive to relaxing outside. March saw 20 days with measurable rainfall and an average high temperature of 56.9°F. There was only one weekend day with highs above 60°F and no rain. Combine that with headlines in every major California newspaper about extratropical cyclones, atmospheric rivers, levee breaches, and evacuation orders, and it's no surprise that people decided to hunker down at home rather than braving the highways in search of wine experiences. It's frankly a wonder our tasting room traffic held up as well as it did. This is in stark contrast to the spring of 2022, where we saw only six rainy days in January, February, and March combined. That wasn't ideal for the vines, but it was great for winery visitation.

This chart combines our high and low temperatures and the daily rainfall for each day since the beginning of March:

Temperature & Rainfall March - April 2023

The contrast between March and April couldn't be more dramatic. The rain ended. Average high temperatures have been 69.2°F, about 13°F warmer than April. This nicer weather has been reflected in the percentage of people who've chosen to sit outside for their tastings here. In March it was just 45% of people who chose to be outside. Since April began, that number has risen to 87%. And our tasting room traffic has rebounded nicely, up 1% over 2022 since the beginning of April.

Sure, there are potential threats to the tasting room model on the horizon, both short-term ones like inflation and the slowing economy, and longer-term threats like changing demographics of wine consumers and the high cost of wine country visits. But I don't think that's the primary cause of what we've seen so far this year. For that, just look to the skies. 

Poppies on our tasting patio

Happy spring, everyone.


Budbreak 2023: Another Reminder of Our Largest Variable, Nature

By Austin Collins

Since my last blog in December, we've had over 46 inches of rain and 60+ below-freezing nights, a harsh winter for us Californians. Although, as I write this, we are experiencing our first proper spring weather, three weeks after the spring equinox. With day temperatures in the high 6o's and 70's, and warmer nights, things have drastically changed here at Tablas Creek. The tasting room now has a bustling patio of people rather than being strapped down for another onslaught of wind and rain. Cover crops and annual grasses have doubled in size, and even though we still have flowing water in some parts of the of the property, most of the saturated soils have dried out enough to allow tractors to re-enter the vineyard.  The air is filled with the smell of mowed grasses and the sounds of some clearly excited birds. Soil temperatures have also risen due to the decrease in moisture, allowing buds to finally "break". Across the hilltops vines are leafing out at a rather hurried pace. With change all around us its hard to ignore our industry's innate connection with nature and its systems. Nature dictates EVERYTHING in this business. From newly planted vines to the wine your glass, the path is rarely straight and sunny, and you can count on it to never look the same:

Budbreak 2023 - Bourboulenc

Above is a Bourboulenc vine just bursting to life on April 12th, 2023. Below is a Bourboulenc vine in the same block, give or take a few rows and vines, on April 1st, 2022. Note the differences in shoot growth as well as the color and size of the cover crop beneath:

Budbreak 2023 - Bourboulenc 2022

The contrast in the above photos is stark, and this true of every inch of the property. This season (beginning July 1st of 2022) we have received 49.01" of rain. That is only .18" fewer than the previous three seasons combined! We've had twelve atmospheric rivers this season. During several of these my family and I were the only ones on the property, for days at a time. My work days consisted of dressing up like a fisherman and maintaining a few different water pumps in hard hit flooded areas. Those pumps ran for 48-hours straight before the water levels began to subside. It was fun while it was novel, but then each rainy day following (there were many) the water had no where to go, do it began to eat away at the soils and our wet weather enthusiasm.

Due to the weather our tasting room, office halls, and vineyard roads were empty for a total of six days, devoid of human sound and movement. All roads leading to and from the property were either washed out or simply impassable by car. We were an island in the Adelaide. I think its fair to say that most business are affected by extreme weather, but given our location we are slightly more vulnerable. As Jason mentioned in his last blog our foot traffic was down 19% this quarter, in comparison to 2022. The natural landscapes have held up well, with the visible damage mostly limited to areas scarred by man. Back in the vineyard we saw predictable spots get washed out, but considering the amount of water flowing through our humble hills, it has held up wonderfully. Now, we are able to continue our work as usual, because nature has allowed us to:

Budbreak 2023 - Newly mown Grenache

It's a spring situation in the vineyard right now, a situation we are very ready for. This is the first time we've had to wait until April for significant budbreak since 2013, making it the latest start in the last decade, about a month behind that average:

2022 Mid-March
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

After about six months of dormancy, lying in wait, now the vines are showing their eagerness to get this vintage underway and enjoy the sunshine:

Budbreak 2023 - Viognier

These two pictures are both taken in our second oldest Viognier block. The above photo was taken on April 11th, 2023, the one below was taken on March 29th, 2021. Again notice the differences despite the 2023 photo being taken two weeks later in the year:

Budbreak 2023 - Viognier 2022

Amongst the bustle of spring activities happening here at the vineyard is the preparation of frost protection. We are currently somewhat "safe", as the budbreak is mostly on the hilltops, which are less at risk of frost. Once vines leaf out in the frost-prone valleys and swales we then have to employ all of our efforts to keep the small vulnerable sprouts safe. Because I live here on the property it is my job to help keep an eye on night-time temperatures. When it drops to about 37 degrees (and still before 5 AM) I layer up and head out to turn on the frost fans and micro-sprinklers to battle the incoming ice. I do so alone, for I truly believe my dog Nina is afraid of the dark. Alas it is her loss, because there are few more beautiful moments in the vineyard. Ice crystals beginning to form on surfaces, sparkling in the light of my headlamp, while silence grips the landscape, everything seemingly too cold to move. From fan to fan my night carries on disrupting the once-enjoyable silence. But, it is not in vain, to see the new growth still green and pushing in the next morning's sun I look forward to the upcoming night and my fray with nature.

Another uncharacteristic element of this year's budbreak is the relative consistency among varietals. Typically we see certain varietals leaf out before others (e.g. Viognier and Grenache before Roussanne and Counoise). While many of those later varietals are still behind there is a lot more uniformity in regards to timing. That being said, Grenache leads the way this year with the largest growth thus far, using all its stored energy built up over the last six months. Like us, the vines have been unable to do their work because, like us, they are bound by the forces of nature. Now, it's go time, for all of us.

Budbreak 2023 - Grenache


Just Add Water: Looking at the Record-Breaking 2022-23 Winter at Tablas Creek

Sometime around 10:45am on Tuesday, March 14th, we blew past our previous record for our wettest-ever winter (42.85", if you're curious, recorded in 2004-05). By the end of that day, we were at 44.33". And we've had ten additional days of measurable rainfall since then. All told, we're at 49.01" of rain for the winter, roughly double our long-term average. After the last three dry years, it couldn't be more welcome. A quick visual comparison to past years since 1996:

Winter Rainfall by Year 1996-2023

The way in which the rain came has been just as remarkable as its total quantity. We've seen 69 separate days with measurable rainfall, and 18 of the 22 weeks since the beginning of November have seen at least some rain:

Winter Rainfall by Week 2022-23

Overall, the distribution of the rain has been fairly even, with either a break after a series of storms (as we saw in mid-December and again through much of February) or modest enough totals that the ground, creeks, and reservoirs were able to hold it (as through most of March). Of course, there is that spike in early January, where we saw nearly 20 inches of rain in three weeks, capped off by six-inch day on January 9th. That was when Las Tablas Creek burst its banks and the flooding in Paso Robles made national news.

In addition to being wet, it's been cold. OK, not New England cold, or upper Midwest cold, but cold for California. Over the last four months, since the beginning of December, we've had just three days where the high temperature has made it into the 70s. More than two-thirds of the days haven't even broken into the 60s. That's really unusual for Paso Robles. And we've had 63 frost nights, the most at least since 2010, which is as far back as the data I can easily access goes:

Frost nights by month  2022-23 vs average

But taken together, the inconveniences have been relatively minor, and the positive effects are likely to be lasting and significant. I'll dive briefly into the impacts, roughly from most negative to most positive.

The negatives

In the short term, we've had to be closed six days this winter either because the roads were closed by the county or because they were so awash that we closed preemptively to keep our people and our customers safe. Adelaida Road was washed out about four miles east of us, but the county did amazing work in getting it reopened in about a week. There was a short-term hit to our revenue from being closed. But all those days were in slow times of year, so the impact wasn't too bad. If your travel plans were impacted by our closures, we apologize.  

All the rain has depressed traffic to Paso Robles compared to what we expect. And I understand! I wouldn't want to drive the California freeways in a driving rainstorm either. That's weather for hunkering down at home. Even when it hasn't been raining, the chilly temperatures haven't exactly suggested relaxing on a terrace sipping wine. So it's not surprising that our tasting room traffic this year has been off 19% compared to 2022, or that the rest of our region would be reporting similar results. But given how scarce we are on wines after low yields in 2021 and 2022, it's not a terrible thing for us to have people delay their trips. 

The equivocal stuff

It's been so wet that there have been several stretches where we took the flock of sheep out of the vineyard so they wouldn't compact the soil. Unlike last year, when we were able to make three passes through the entire vineyard thanks to the early rain and the ample January and February sun, we're still working on our second pass. Of course, there will be more moisture than we've ever seen as we head into the growing season. We're expecting to be able to cut and bale more feed for our flock than we've ever done before. That, combined with the extra growth that we're sure to see in the forests and unplanted blocks, means we're likely to have plenty for the sheep to eat later in the summer, when forage is usually scarce.

Deep cover crop in dormant Tannat April 2023

The very wet soils have also meant that we've been unable to get our tractors into the vineyard and so can't begin the process of mowing or disking that's usually in full swing by April. Although we've been moving away from tilling in recent years, we still think it's a good idea to get the weeds out from amongst the grapevines and to mow the long grasses so that we get good flow of light and air through the rows (reducing mildew pressures later in the year) and allowing cold air to drain (reducing our risk of frost). That's just not going to be possible in the short term. Thankfully, budbreak (and the frost risk that goes with it) is delayed.  

The positives

Speaking of budbreak, the most important determining factor for when grapevines come out of dormancy is soil temperature. Wet soils hold cool temperatures better than dry soils, particularly when even the sunny days are chilly. And this year's budbreak is later than any year at least since 2012. Just in the last day or two, we've seen the first tiny leaves. But what we've seen isn't widespread enough to really make for a good comparison, so it's possible we'll even end up later than that year's mid-April start when it all comes down to it. Given that our weather station recorded a low temperature of 29.2F yesterday and 30.7F this morning, I'm happy things are dormant. A later beginning to the growing season can help in two ways, reducing the duration when you have to worry about frosts (a risk here through early May), and pushing harvest into what is likely a cooler time of year (say, mid-September through early November instead of mid-August through mid-October).

The hydrology out here in the Adelaida District is complicated. Unlike the east side of Paso Robles, where there is a single shared groundwater basin whose levels are fairly easily measured, under our limestone layers lies a network of underground rivers, lakes, and small aquifers. By the end of December, our well levels had risen back up to their maximums. That has happened just about every winter. But unlike in many recent years, the saturated soils are continuing to replenish those water resources at the same time that the delayed budbreak and the wet conditions have meant that the draws on these water resources have been lower. That will surely mean more water available later in the year, which is something we can all celebrate. A look in some of our lower sections shows just how much water is still seeping out of these hills:

Water seeping out of Cotes Maduena April 2023

We know that all this water will be invaluable later in the growing season. Paso Robles is a stressful place to grow if you're a grapevine. The summers can be hot and punishingly dry. But our calcareous soils, which offer an ideal mix of water retention and drainage, can help mitigate that stress. Their structure allows them to wick moisture from the surface down deep as it arrives, and then to transport it back from wetter, deeper layers toward the surface as those surface layers dry out later in the growing season. Knowing that the soils are saturated as deep as they go gives us the best possible starting point as we prepare for the growing season.

Finally, we know that vine health one year plays an important role in the bud development of the grapevines, which has impacts on the vineyard's productivity the next year. So all this lovely water and the robust cane growth we're expecting should have a positive carry-over effect on the 2024 harvest as well. Given that we're so short on wine that we're having to sacrifice some of our core blends this year and scaling back allocations of all of our estate wines, a couple of productive vintages in a row would be very good news indeed.

We only need to look back at the 2017 vintage for an example of what can happen when a rainy winter follows a multi-year drought. We saw outstanding cane and leaf growth, with some blocks looking like jungles. It was our most productive harvest in the last decade, but with excellent chemistry from the good vine health. And it has made some of our favorite wines in recent memory, excellent for both reds and whites.

It might be a while until we see another winter with rainfall like this past one. Sure, it's led to some inconveniences. But those feel minor compared to all the positives we're expecting. Now, we just need to dodge frosts for another month. Fingers crossed, please.

Winter Rainfall by Month vs Average 2022-23
 


Winter's color show, playing now on daily rotation

Most visitors come to wine country in the season when the Golden State feels appropriately named. Between May and November, hillsides are yellow-brown, broken by the deep green of oaks and the slightly lighter green of grapevines. The sky is a pure, medium blue. It's a beautiful color palette in its own right, with remarkable consistency from the fact that moisture in those months is extremely rare. 

This is not that season. After three very wet weeks to kick off the year, we've had nearly a month of sun. The hillsides are a brilliant yellow-green from new growth. There's still so much water everywhere that it's seeping out in impromptu springs and flowing through usually-dry gullies. And in the mornings, it's settling into surface fog. That fog produces something rare in California: the feeling of enclosed spaces. The landscape more than few dozen yards away becomes shrouded and indistinct. It feels quieter. Then, as that fog lifts in the warmth of the morning sun, you get transitional moments of sunlit foreground and puffy white middle distance. Finally, by mid-morning, the fog is gone, the green of the new grasses brilliantly set off against the deep brown trees and grapevine trunks, and the sky a deep azure blue. It's a remarkable transformation, and it's happening daily right now. In this blog, I'll take you through what one of those days feels like, starting in the fog and finishing in the sun. 

Oak tree on hilltop in fog

It's not all vineyards here; the photo above is of an oak near my house. There are still old walnut orchards too, shaggy with lichen:

Walnut in lifting fog

The transitional moments are my favorites. First, a shot in the forest, rays of sun illuminating the moisture:

Shafts of light in the forest

And then one overlooking some head-trained vineyards, newly pruned, with a river of fog less than a hundred yards away:

Fog flowing across head-trained vineyard

By mid-morning the sun is warm, the grasses fully lit, and the sky deepening except right at the horizon line. That's a lot of very happy sheep.  

Crosshairs block so green with sheep

One more view of the sheep, looking up the rows instead of across, shows off the block's geometry:

Sheep on hillside horizontal

The blue sky deepens for the next few hours, and the contrasting blues, greens, and browns are amazing:

Head-trained Mourvedre and blue sky

Finally, one more photo focusing on the sky. If you're visiting in the next few months, you're in for a treat.

Head-trained Mourvedre and blue sky 2


After two of our five rainiest months ever, we're ready for a break... but grateful for the moisture

I left California three weeks ago, just after Christmas, to spend some time in New England with family. At the time, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about how our winter was shaping up. We'd banked nearly 13" of rain and were at something like 170% of the rain we'd have expected at that point in the winter. The day I left, it started raining and essentially hasn't stopped. With the two-thirds of an inch that we got today, this makes 20 of the last 21 days we've seen measurable precipitation. The end-of-December rain pushed us to 13.28" for the month, making it our second-wettest December in the 25 years since we installed our weather station and a top-5 rainfall month overall.

Then came January. A series of atmospheric river storms paraded across the Pacific and slammed into California. Some were aimed farther north, but still dropped a couple of inches of rain. And one arrived on early in the morning of Monday, January 9th with its plume of moisture directed squarely at the Central Coast. We tallied 5.65" that day, including more than 4" in its peak between 1am and 10am. And when we arrived to see how things looked at the winery that morning, we realized that we couldn't even get there because Las Tablas Creek was flowing over Adelaida Road:

It wasn't until Wednesday that we could make it into our facility, and Thursday that we could reopen our tasting room. Thanks to some great work by our neighbors at Halter Ranch the debris blocking the culvert that was causing the creek to flow over the road was removed before the road was critically damaged. There was a section of Adelaida Road a few miles east of us that wasn't so lucky. And we had to close again this past Saturday because a new storm made access to the winery unsafe. Residents and businesses out here are still picking up the pieces, and what we're seeing is minor compared to the scale of damage around the state, with 19 deaths so far and floods forcing people from their homes from Sacramento to Santa Barbara.

Still, while we wish it had been spread out more, we're grateful to have received the rain. And when I got out in the vineyard today, it was stunning: lush and green from the saturated soils yet with minimal signs of erosion even on our steepest slopes:

After the rain - Counoise and cover crop

There wasn't really any standing water, even at the bottom of the hills, thanks to the remarkable ability our calcareous soils have to transport enormous quantities of water from the surface to deeper layers. That said, there was some water slowly trickling downhill in blocks like this head-trained Mourvedre at the northern edge of the property. It was wet enough that I nearly lost my boots getting this shot:

After the rain - water in head-trained Mourvedre

For all its beauty now, it's clear that things were pretty wild a week ago. You can see the deep cuts in the channels where valleys became rushing creeks (left) and the impact of 36 hours of water flowing over Adelaida Road (right):

After the rain - water flowing from Halter Ranch

After the rain - erosion on Adelaida Road

With nearly half the month still to come, January 2023 is already our third-wettest month in our history, trailing only January 2017 and (from before I started writing this blog) February 1998. We're at 281% of expected rainfall for this point in the winter and above our full-winter long-term average. After three years of drought, that's a huge relief.

Rainfall by month through January 2023

You can see from the rainfall distribution above why this season is so critical for us. We get three-quarters of our annual rainfall between December and March. If we have an extended winter dry stretch, it's almost impossible to make it up later. And drought impacts are cumulative. Grapevines generally do fine the first year of a drought cycle, thanks to their accumulated vigor. But starting the second year, you see the reduction in yields, and by the third year you start to see impacts on vine health and mortality. That's played out for us the last three years. 2020 saw roughly average yields. But 2021 saw yields off by 26% and 2022 saw them decline another 8%. A quick look at our available wines shows many more sold-out than for sale. And that's before we've even gotten to the 2022 vintage, from which there will be several wines we just won't be able to make. So getting rain this winter was particularly important.

Vineyards themselves are typically resilient in the face of extreme rainfall events. Those events typically come in winter, when the vines are dormant, and grapevines' deep roots play an important role in helping hold soil in place. Vineyards that are regeneratively farmed tend to do even better. Both no-till farming and planted cover crops (one or the other is required for regenerative certifications) keep surface erosion to a minimum. The focus on building up the organic matter in your soils helps them hold more moisture. And the biodiversity in regenerative farming systems tends to create a denser web of life than monocultures. Witness this section in the middle of the vineyard, which a decade ago was one of our most erosion-prone areas but which we planted to a mix of perennial crops that would act as attractors for beneficial insects. The combination of shrubs and deep grass, already well-established because it hasn't been tilled in years, made for one of the least-soggy sections of the vineyard:

After the rain - Biodynamic plantings

Looking forward, we're supposed to get a few more showery days and then a solid week at least of sun. That will be welcome for everyone, from vineyard to residents to businesses. It should give the county a chance to get out and repair the damaged roads. It should shift the cover crop into overdrive, and make for some very happy sheep. It will give the soils a chance to transfer the water to deeper layers and free up space at the surface for the next storm. It might even give us a chance to get started on our pruning, which we've been unable to do because pruning in wet weather encourages the spread of fungal diseases. But as happy as we are with what we've received, we're hoping this isn't the end of the rain. The local reservoirs still have significant room; while Lake Nacimiento is at 87% capacity, Lake San Antonio is only at 32%. At Tablas Creek we're chipping away at an accumulated rainfall deficit of 28" from the last three years of drought. Plus there would be benefits during the growing season, as soils with high moisture content stay cool longer in the spring and delay budbreak, which would reduce our risk of frost damage. And on a purely aesthetic level, there's a particular character to the green here after winter rain that I love. Who wouldn't want more of this?

After the rain - New Hill and Jewel Ridge

If you were negatively impacted by these storms, please know you have our deepest sympathy. It's been a rough couple of weeks for California. But if you were worried that the vineyards here would be suffering, hopefully we can at least put that to rest. We have high hopes for the 2023 vintage.  


What does the latest atmospheric river storm mean for Paso Robles Wine Country's rain year?

[Editor's note 1/10: I've posted a quick summary of the flooding and other impacts of our January 9th atmospheric river storm in a comment. We're posting regular updates on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. And I'm planning a blog with a more comprehensive report next week.]

Our current atmospheric river storm, which isn't even over yet, has received a lot of press with even big east coast papers like the New York Times and Washington Post giving it front-page coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle is dedicating most of its homepage to stories about the storm and its impacts. Down here in Paso Robles we got 3.53" of rain yesterday and last night, and have received another quarter-inch of rain in showers this afternoon. With other storms just a day or two out, I thought I'd do a quick assessment of what the impacts of the rain have been so far and what we're expecting next.

The tl;dr for those of you who start meals by eating dessert: the impacts to this point have been essentially all positive for us. We've already surpassed our rainfall for the winters of 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22. The ground is saturated, but we haven't seen either flooding or noteworthy erosion. And Las Tablas Creek is flowing for the first time since early 2019:

We're at just about 200% of our expected January 5th total for the rainfall year which started in July. Looking month by month, we more than tripled our normal December rain and finished just a fraction of an inch behind 2004 for our wettest December ever. And unlike last year, when we had a wet December and then an almost totally dry spring, it looks like we'll surpass our normal January rainfall this weekend. Here's what it looks like so far (January's total is through this afternoon, while the expected total is for the entire month):

Rainfall by Month as of January 2023

For the rainfall year, we're up to 19.6" of total rain, with more than half the rainfall season to go. That's terrific. The fact that Las Tablas Creek is flowing is a great sign of the saturation of the soils; there are several irrigation ponds upstream from us, and other than some surface runoff that happens during storms, it's not until those ponds fill up and the top several feet of soil is saturated that the creek flows continuously. Today, the creek is flowing merrily into our lake:

Las Tablas Creek and lake

In the vineyard, you can practically hear the cover crops growing. Although we move the sheep out of the vineyard during rain events (both to provide them shelter and to keep the soil compaction that they cause in very wet weather to a minimum) there will be ample grass whenever it dries out enough to let them back in:

Cover Crop

You can get a sense of how excited they are by all this grass from the video we shared Tuesday on Twitter:

Most people who haven't spent a winter in the Paso Robles area think of it as a desert climate. And it is, in the summer. But the six winter months are wet enough on average, at least in the western fringes of the AVA where we're located, to qualify as a temperate rain forest if those months were extrapolated year-round. That fact, combined with the hilly topography, means that we're pretty well set up for heavy rainfall events. You can get some localized stream flooding (though Las Tablas Creek hasn't flooded in the two decades that I've been out here). You can get some minor mudslides where the roads have been cut through the hills. And you can have downed trees from wind and wet soils that can knock out power. But our calcareous soils are exceptionally porous, which means that they transport massive volumes of water from the surface to deeper layers before they reach saturation. By the time they do saturate, the winter grasses tend to be well-enough established that erosion is minimal (as evidence, check out my photo essay from January 2017 after we'd broken our record for our wettest month ever). Finally, the hilly landscape means that the extra water by and large flows off and fills up our reservoirs rather than flooding our towns. Lake Nacimiento, into which Las Tablas Creek and the rest of our watershed empties, was up to 747.7 feet as of today, 32 feet higher than it was just over a month ago on December 1st, but despite the billions (yes, with a "b") of additional stored gallons of water, the reservoir is still at just 38% of its capacity. Lake San Antonio is at just 13% of its capacity. We can get a lot more rain before we have to start worrying about where it might go.

Looking forward, we're expecting another major Pacific storm Sunday into Monday. And it seems like there's another one lined up behind that later next week. But while we'll be watching the forecast we're not expecting the potentially dangerous impacts for which northern California is preparing. Some of that is because it seems like these storms will be aimed such that the largest precipitation totals will be a little north of us. But just as much, it's because our soils and topography are uniquely well suited to dealing with large amounts of water in a short time. After all, we got more than a dozen inches of rain in a single storm in January 2021, and the impacts were almost all positive.

So while I'll be checking our weather station's totals regularly it won't be with dread. The opposite, really. After consecutive drought-reduced crops (see my recaps for 2021 and 2022 if you want the gory details) I'm hoping for a historically wet winter: something that will replenish our aquifers and reservoirs, delay budbreak to a more normal time frame, and set us up for a couple of years. This has happened before, in winters like 2004-05, 2009-10, and 2016-17. And it feels like we're well on our way to a similar result this year. Let's keep it coming.

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