Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th


Releasing Esprit de Tablas and thinking about my dad

This is the time of year when we release the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc.  We've been doing this long enough to have a pretty consistent plan of attack each year.  First, in late summer, we send our most recent vintage of the Esprits out to the club members who ordered futures en primeur the year before. Then, the Esprit wines form the centerpieces of our fall VINsider Wine Club shipments, which go out to members in early October.  We show those wines to members at our VINsider shipment tasting party (which happened this past weekend) and look for a local event at which we can have them make their public debut (this year, it will be at our Harvest Festival dinner with the Cass House Grill in Cayucos).

Then, we turn our focus to the national market.  I spend a good chunk of my fall getting in front of our distributors in key markets around the country; in the last few months I've made trips to Boston, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington DC.  I head to Chicago next week.  Tomorrow I'll make the drive up to Santa Rosa and show the 2016 Esprits for the first time to Regal Wine Company, who represents us in California.  In these presentations, I tell the story of Tablas Creek, remind people that the Esprit de Tablas wines are our flagship bottlings, and share the new vintage with the sales team, who will hopefully then take that message out to the right restaurants and retail shops they call on.

Last year, we realized that the story of Esprit de Tablas was really, in many ways, a distillation of the story of Tablas Creek. It seemed to me that the only appropriate voice to tell this story was my dad's.  So, when I was in Vermont last summer, he and I sat down in front of a camera manned by my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, and spent an afternoon talking about how Tablas Creek came about.

Filming the Esprit de Tablas video with RZH

When we were done, we had about two hours of footage, treasure troves of stories from my dad's 60+ year wine career.  The multi-talented Nathan Stuart, whose primary role is to oversee our animal program, took off his shepherd hat and put on his videographer hat, and spent the next couple of weeks editing the relevant pieces of the story into a five-minute video that traces the development of the Esprit de Tablas, from my dad's perspective.  I'll be showing this video tomorrow to our California distributor, and again next week in Chicago.

I didn't realize, when I went to put my presentation together, how much hearing my dad's voice would affect me, but I've been finding that a lot of the times I miss him most are when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly, and I hear him talking about Tablas Creek, and remember how much he loved working on all this.  I will always feel lucky that I got to spend that time working with him, helping him make his dream of what Tablas Creek could be into reality.

Hopefully, the distributor teams I show this to over the next couple of weeks will find it inspiring, too. And hopefully, I'll make it through my presentation (most of which comes after this video) without choking up.


Harvest 2018 at its mid-point: moderate to good yields and outstanding quality under ideal weather conditions

After two intense weeks, the cellar is pretty much full and we're in a bit of a lull. The early grapes (think Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir) are done or largely done, and while we've made a start with the mid-season grapes like Grenache and Tannat, there's still more out on the vines than there is in the cellar. Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are still a few weeks off. This ebb and flow is a good chance to let a few fermentations finish in what is a very full cellar: 

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The weather has been absolutely ideal, a bit cooler than normal, but with a few short warm-ups mixed in to give the grapes periodic nudges toward ripeness. And even during those warm stretches, the nights have been quite chilly, leading to some remarkable diurnal temperature swings. From the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather stations this past Wednesday:

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The 48.5° swing that we saw at Tablas Creek was one of the smaller ones in the area. The Templeton Gap's swing was 57.8°, while the Adelaida West station, just a few miles away from us, was 62.3°.  That's remarkable, even here in Paso Robles where massive diurnal swings are commonplace. But it meant that even when it was hot, it was only hot for a few hours, with the vast majority of the day in the 85°-95° range which is ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. 

With the first handful of varieties harvested, we have the first chance to wrap our heads around yields.  It looks like yields are down from 2017, but still above the levels we saw during our drought. The varieties we've finished harvesting are down a total of 12.8%. Given that 2017 was up 21.8% over 2016's more or less average yields, we still seem like we're in good shape. The details on the grapes we've finished with:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.9 14.4 -23.8%
Marsanne 13.8 11.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 33.7 -27.4%
Vermentino 22.2 21.7 -2.3%
Syrah 41.5 42.6 +2.7%
Pinot Noir 8.7 7.9 -9.2%
Total so Far 151.5 132.1 -12.8%

In terms of timing, as September moves into October, we're still about two weeks behind what we have grown used to in the 2012-2017 run, and haven't picked up any significant ground since the beginning of harvest. We picked Syrah this year between September 14th and 25th.  Last year, it came in between August 31st and September 20th. The 2018 Viognier came in between August 31st and September 20th. In 2017, its range was August 30th to September 4th. By the end of September last year, we'd picked 90% of our Grenache. This year, we're only 24 tons in, or about a third of what we expect to harvest.  I'd give us less than a 50/50 chance of being done by the end of October this year. That's not particularly scary; in the 2000's we harvested into November more than half the vintages. But it's been a while. 

The quality has been outstanding so far: terrific flavors and ideal numbers from fruit that has looked like it could have come of the table at our local farmers' market. And the fermentations have smelled wonderful. We've been wishing for scratch-and-sniff Internet, so we can share more than just how nice fermentations (like the Pinot Noir pictured below) look:

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Looking forward, we expect to see a lot of Grenache and Tannat the next week or two, and we'll likely start cherry-picking Roussanne and Mourvedre, to get the ripest clusters into the cellar so they don't raisin while we wait for the majority of the fruit to reach maturity. Scenes like Saturday morning's, where Tannat bins spill from the crushpad onto our staff parking lot, will be commonplace:

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There is a little uncertainty in next week's forecast; the interaction between a Pacific low pressure system and the remnants of Hurricane Rosa will likely cause some showers on Wednesday.  But with the forecast predicted to warm up and dry out after, that's not a big deal.  At worst, we may not pick for a couple of days.  But if you're in the desert Southwest, this is something to prepare for:

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the beautiful fermentation aromas in the cellar, and the colors of the grapes on the vines. And hope that the second half of harvest continues under equally good conditions as we've seen for the first half.


El corazón y el alma del viñedo Tablas Creek, David Maduena

By Jordan Lonborg

mas·ter (noun). A skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity.

It is not everyday that you encounter a master of a craft. Some of us may only get the chance to meet a couple in our lifetime. Few of us get the chance to work alongside one. For those of you that have not had the chance, it does not take long to realize the size of the shadow this person casts. For those of you that have, you’ll feel the words that precede this sentence.

It has been a privilege and an honor to work alongside David Maduena for the last three harvests. Although soft spoken, his mere presence demands respect. For 26 years David has worked the land at Tablas Creek. He remembers every vintage since 1992 (the year he started at Tablas Creek Vineyard) so clearly, it is almost unsettling. Whether the year had excessive amounts of rain (we should be so lucky), frost, heat etc., David remembers. All of the mistakes I and others have made, David remembers. Tonnages harvested, powdery mildew outbreaks, acres of each block, the spacing of the rows in said blocks, rootstocks, clones, and on and on, David Maduena remembers.

David has literally touched every vine on the property many times over. I’ve had conversations with him about certain blocks, rows, and even individual vines on the property, and his ability to recount the history of those blocks, rows and vines is truly awe-inspiring. An example that Neil told me: one day, a few years ago, David walked into the lab and said "there's some mildew in the Grenache". Neil asked him where, and he walked out to the quad and brought in one Grenache cluster that showed a little mildew. We never found another mildewed cluster that year. He'd found the one mildewed cluster, in a vineyard of 150,000 vines.

As Tablas grew, David was the man on the ground. Every ditch that had been dug for irrigation, David was there. When plants were being propagated in the nursery, David was there. Planting the vines that now make up the oldest and best blocks at Tablas Creek Vineyard? That was David. Grafting, fertilizing, pruning, shoot thinning, weeding, he's done all of that. Hard work is and has always been a stalwart in David’s life. He thrives on tough jobs. His upbringing sheds light as to why his hands, heart, and soul make him the amazing human he is today.

David is the second oldest in a family of fifteen children. He grew up in the rural hills of Durango, Mexico. Agriculture was not a profession for him and his siblings, it was a way of life. He has told me a few stories of those days that left my jaw wide open. The responsibilities he had as a young 13 year old will truly humble you to the core. I look at my 13 year old self and am stupefied as to how a person that age could provide for their family like David had been doing for his. Being the uncle of of 12 (soon to be 14) nieces and nephews that are closing in on that age, I’m even more amazed. At 15, David left Durango to come to the United States, for the chance to provide a future for his younger siblings and parents. I ask you to think about your 15 year old self, being faced with that decision. Myself and most others would not even be able to comprehend that choice at 15. David was able to. He left his parents, his sisters, his brothers, his cousins, his hometown, everything he knew and held dearly to his heart, to go 1000 miles away to a country that did not speak his language and did not understand his culture. All this at the age of 15. Once here he restarted a life, earned his residency, was hired, promoted, and promoted again at Tablas Creek, built a career, and started a family. He is the proud father of 7 amazing children and the lucky husband of a beautiful wife named Maggie (she is amazing).

In a country that was founded on immigration, founded on the “American Dream”, I cannot tell you enough how honored I am to work with a human being who so embodies that dream. He is the Vineyard Manager and a critical part of the success of this great winery. The vineyard crew he manages, the cellar team, accounting, administration, and tasting room staff respect him in a way that is nearly impossible to describe. The man is truly a living legend. I hope that everyone that reads this blog has had the chance to meet/work alongside a human that is a pure example of why this country is as great as it is.

David MaduenaDavid, preparing our old Chardonnay block (now Mourvedre and Counoise) for planting

Maduena YoungerDavid in a candid shot from the early 2000s

Hats off to you David Maduena. Thank you for being the bada** that you are. We all have a lot to learn from you and yours. There are no words for the amount of respect you have earned and deserve from all of us on the property. Tu realmente eres una leyenda viviente!

David with the years first pickDavid, overseeing the first pick of 2018: his 26th Tablas Creek harvest


Yeah, that slow start to the 2018 harvest? That's history.

I walked into our lab today and Chelsea turned to me and said, "so, do you remember last week when I said I was bored"?  Yeah, not so much any more.  As often happens, even in years like this one that start slowly, there comes a day where you realize that everywhere you look you see grapes.  This year, today was that day.

Grapes Everywhere Sept 13th

What did I see?  Grenache, waiting in bins to be direct pressed for the Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Marsanne, waiting on the crushpad (there was more in the cellar) for the press to open up.  Our first Syrah arriving for the Patelin de Tablas red.  And that wasn't all.  We began the day with a night pick of the last of the Pinot Noir from my parent's house, and finished, 29 tons later, with eight bins of Viognier off our oldest block.

Those 29.68 tons, on top of twenty-eight tons yesterday and sixteen more on Tuesday, put us just over 77 tons for the week.  Yes, that's a lot of grapes, and there's more to come tomorrow, Saturday, and likely Sunday as well.  All told, we'll top 100 tons this week, which will make it one of our busiest weeks of the harvest.  Last year (our largest harvest ever at 642 tons, in 9 weeks) we saw three weeks top 100 tons, with the busiest tallying 126 tons.  We'll likely challenge that this week.

Happily, the fruit looks great, and the conditions are absolutely perfect. Today topped out at 83°F here, while last night dropped down to 40.7°F.  That means that any additional ripening is going to happen slowly, and it keeps the harvesting window open.  And the long-term forecast is benign, with similar weather expected for the whole outlook.  That's more like what we'd normally expect in late October, not mid-September.  But it's in keeping with the prolonged cool stretches that we've seen all year, at least outside of the six scorching weeks in mid-summer. 

So, we'll enjoy a cellar that is filling up with grapes:

Cellar with Bins

And that chalkboard, that just a few days ago was a literal clean slate? That's starting to fill up too. 

Chalkboard Sept 13th


Harvest 2018 Begins with a Whisper

A little more than a month ago, I predicted that the 2018 harvest would begin sometime in the first half of September.  I was almost right.  We actually got our first fruit -- a couple of tons of Viognier -- on August 31st.  About five tons of Viognier came in for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc on September 5th.  And then, this morning, we picked our first red grapes: 2.6 tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' vineyard:

Full Circle Pinot harvest - Team photo

How does this leisurely beginning to the 2018 harvest stack up against other recent years? Much slower. The first 11 days of the 2018 harvest saw 10.64 tons of fruit arrive in the cellar, which is just 16% of our average (67.34 tons in the first 11 days) this decade. The decade has included cool and hot vintages, early and late starts, and even in the years with the slowest starts we saw at least triple the amount of fruit arriving in the cellar during the first week and a half of harvest.  So, we really are seeing an outlier this year. The below chart will illustrate, and I've also tossed on the chart the date of our first Full Circle Pinot Noir harvest, for comparison:

Year Tons, First 11 Days Date of First Pinot Harvest
2018 10.64 September 10th
2017 156.06 August 29th
2016 83.41 August 23rd
2015 80.78 August 22nd
2014 40.48 August 28th
2013 81.67 August 23rd
2012 120.95 September 6th
2011 37.57 September 22nd
2010 32.03 September 28th

You can see, in addition to how unusual this slow start to harvest is, just how much later harvest has been this year than in other recent years. The first Pinot Noir pick is a good marker for us, because it always comes from the same small vineyard.  We're more than two weeks later than our 2013-2017 average, though not as far behind as what we saw the historically cool back-to-back 2010 and 2011 vintages.  

Although we've seen a brief warmup the last few days, it's been quite cool, overall, since mid-August, and we're forecast for more cool weather this and next week.  So, we may not see things catch up much.  That's not worrying, at least not yet.  Longer hang times are a good thing, as is the ability to pick at just the right moment, instead of being forced into a pick in the middle of a heat spike.  Of course, if we don't catch up at all, and finish harvest still two-plus weeks behind where we've been the last five years, there's a better-than-even chance we'll be harvesting in November. We wouldn't have thought that unusual a recently as a few years ago (between 2000 and 2011 harvest stretched into November six times) but it hasn't happened since 2011.  It does appear, as I wrote this summer, that we're looking at something of a throwback vintage

The slower start to harvest has meant that we've been able to get out and get good samples on most of our early blocks, and we like what we see.  Clusters are small but not tiny.  The vines appear healthy, recovered after the long mid-summer heat marathon.  Numbers are ideal for us at this stage.  And the fruit looks great.  A bin of Viognier looks fresh and clean:

Viognier cluster with Linneas hand

The fruit in the press smells great, like peaches and flowers, and the rich, yeasty scents of fermentation are beginning to permeate the cellar:

Viognier in press

And now that we finally have some red grapes in the cellar, we can really get things going.  Please join me in welcoming the 2018 harvest.

Full Circle Pinot harvest - bins and vines


What a difference a few weeks makes: From hot to cool as we wait for a delayed harvest

If you didn't know how beautiful a fog bank can be, you haven't spent a summer in Paso Robles.  Yesterday, I returned to the vineyard after a weekend in San Francisco to find that I'd somehow brought back the weather with me.  The daytime high was just 77°F. The night before dropped down to 43°F. And there was a big, beautiful fog bank sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west:

Fog bank August 2018

Now this weather pattern isn't shocking for us, even in the middle of the summer. Although we get plenty of hot days, we normally see a pattern that builds in heat, tops out over 100°F for a few days, then breaks and we see cooler weather with days topping out in the upper 70s or lower 80s for a few days before it starts to build.

But it was shocking in that this summer, we hadn't seen the breaks hardly at all.  In fact, between July 5th and August 19th -- a stretch of six and a half weeks --  the lowest high temperature that we saw was 87°, and the lowest low temperature we saw was 53°. We had 22 days top 100°F. Our average high was 98.8° and our average low 57.6°. 

Happily, things have changed over the last ten days.  Every one of the days since August 20th would have been the lowest high and the lowest low in the previous 6-week stretch. We averaged a high of 83.3° and a low of 48.5°. And the long-term forecast calls for continued moderate weather.  The vineyard appears grateful for the respite; the vines look a lot less stressed to me than they did a couple of weeks back.

In some ways, this year reminds me of 2015, where we had alternating cold and hot months all the way from budbreak in April to the close of harvest in October.  Although the periods have lasted longer this year, we are seeing the same cold-hot-cold pattern.  I'm hoping that yields aren't as scarce as they were in 2015, when we were deep in the throes of our drought and also saw cold, windy weather during the May flowering period that reduced crop loads on our early grapes by as much as 70%, but it's certain that they'll be down from our 2017 levels.  How much is still to be determined.  But in character, the 2015s were outstanding, so if that's our baseline, I'm not unhappy.

Because we've largely avoided the temperatures where grapevines photosynthesize optimally (between 85°F and 95°F) we're still trending behind on our harvest. We're thinking it might begin slowly at the end of next week.  And we're OK with that.  In my trek around the vineyard, I tasted berries from Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Tannat, and Roussanne, and none of them were anywhere near ripe.  In fact, most were still only partway through veraison, a month after I wrote about it.  A few photos will demonstrate.  First, Tannat, where you can see the characteristic blue-black berries intermixed with pink and even green berries at the top of the cluster:

Tannat cluster August 2018

Next, Grenache Blanc. It's harder to see veraison in white grapes, but you can see some berries with a yellow tint, while others toward the center of the cluster are still more green:

Grenache Blanc cluster August 2018

And finally Roussanne, which is still resolutely green, not showing any of the characteristic russet coloring that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne cluster August 2018

It's worth recapitulating how much later we are than other recent years. Four of the last five years, we'd already started picking off our estate as of August 28th, and the fifth (2017) we were just two days from beginning and had already received some Viognier for the Patelin Blanc.  This year? Not so much. We've gone from weather that was too cool to ripen grapes fast to weather that was too hot to gapes ripen fast right back to cool weather, with virtually no transition either time.  We're out sampling all our Patelin vineyards, but nothing is imminent. The cellar team has been scrubbing equipment from top to bottom, and everything is sparkling clean. We've installed some new mini-foudres for our white program. The table is set... we're just waiting for the guests to arrive.

Clean cellar with new foudres August 2018


Checking in on the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel

I have a confession to make.  I know that winemakers and winery proprietors are supposed to love all their creations, but I'm afraid that the 2009 vintage was never a favorite of mine.  Products of the third year of drought, further concentrated by some of the most damaging spring frosts we've ever seen, and then given yet more power by a hot, sunny summer, our wines from 2009 have generally come across to me as more massive than nuanced, with whites that tended to feel heavy and reds that were so bound up by their tannins that they masked the more subtle expressions of soil and varietal.

It's not as though these wines didn't have fans. The 2009 Esprit got a raft of 92-96 point ratings, the 2009 Esprit Blanc's ratings ranged from 91-94, and the 2009 Cotes de Tablas even made it into the Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2011.  But they were never the wines that I reached for when I wanted something to drink with a meal.  However, time has a way of resolving this particular issue -- what you might call muscle-bound-ness -- with red wines, and when I saw a few bottles stashed in my parents' cellar in Vermont on a recent trip, I decided to bring one up and open it with dinner.

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The transformation that I felt had begun two years ago -- when we chose the 2009 to go out to our Collector's Edition Wine Club members -- has continued, and the wine was singing.  My notes:

A rich nose of Worcestershire, marinating meat, bay, cloves, and plum compote. Mouth-filling with flavors of chocolate syrup, licorice, tangy dark spice, meat drippings, and soy. The tannins are still potent on the finish, keeping control over flavors of cola, licorice, and sweet spice. A lingering impression of meatiness focused by salty minerality is lovely. Just coming into its own, with a long life ahead of it.

I really shouldn't be surprised that this wine has blossomed. After all, it had all the elements for a wine that shows best with some age: plenty of tannin and concentration, solid acidity, and rich texture. What it didn't have in its youth was elegance: the translucency of flavor that shows off the soils as well as the fruit, the spices as well as the structure.  It does now, and anyone who's got some in their cellars is in for a treat.