Life as a Harvest Cellar Intern: To Shower or Not to Shower?

[Editor's note: With this post, we are happy to welcome Linnea Frazier to the Tablas Creek blog.  Linnea was one of our cellar interns for this years harvest, fresh from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. This was her first cellar experience. This won't be the last you hear from her, as we are also happy to announce that she will be staying on with us working as our Marketing Assistant, as well as in the Tasting Room.]

By Linnea Frazier

I glanced at the clock. It was 8:13 pm and I had just trudged through the door after yet another twelve-hour cellar work day. After grappling with my juice-stained, water-logged boots and eventually winning the battle, I flopped onto the bed and contemplated my grape induced state of affairs.

To shower or not to shower? Eh, that’s what the glory of dry shampoo was invented for. To eat something besides oatmeal for dinner and make a decent meal fit for a person? Hmm, if I put enough chia seeds in it that means I’m healthy right? To attempt to stay up past 9:30 for once and get a drink with the friends who were threatening to file a missing persons report on me? Hard pass, because that would probably entail staying awake long enough to understand basic human social cues (plus the whole shower thing). Then I should probably FaceTime my Mom and placate her that I haven’t fallen into a fermenting tank yet. Perhaps not, because she would demand to check the state of my Harvest Hands.[i]

That glorious night ended as most every night of Harvest did, with my feet in fuzzy socks and a glass of my one true love, Syrah, in hand. There I rested, falling asleep by nine like the 23-year-old harvest Grandma that I was more than happily content being.

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Looking back at this year’s harvest I can’t help but chuckle at my preconceived notions going into it, and how much that changed into the new reality I have emerging from it. To describe working harvest at a winery in a mere blog is no easy task. Words almost seem to fail when I think about the evolution of what those unoffending, little grape clusters do to make their way to be imbibed and dissected at our dinner party tables, and what we need to do as winemakers to ensure they don’t stray that path. Perhaps it’s the influence of our heavily moustached shepherd Nathan, but there’s a sheep-dogging metaphor in there somewhere.

For what happens in a winery's cellar is worlds apart from the warmth and comfort of its tasting room. The environment of a cellar is raw, almost carnal in nature, with the cellar crew itself verging on animalistic at times amongst the frenzy of a Harvest. It is cold, damp, and amongst the constant heavy whir of machinery you can readily lose sense of time and place. The fervid smell of fermentation clings to everything, including you. It is this living, breathing entity with the cellar crew tending to it as worker bees tend to their hive. And it is one of my favorite places in the world.

Harvest was not about my reversion to a 9 pm bedtime. Nor was it about learning how many espresso shots your body can take in twelve hours. Nor even how alright you are with leaving a veritable crumb trail of grape skins wherever you go. No, in the end, it was about falling in love with not only the people who make Tablas Creek what it is, but also with a process that has been one of the most gratifying and humbling human experiences my minimal years have yet to afford me.

To walk through the rows of vines in the vineyard, to feel the buildup of sugar between your fingers in a berry, knowing that countless man hours and spreadsheets and lab work have the exact time and date of picking down to the minute, is humbling. To watch the picking crews leave after a night shift to sleep and rest as we come in to start our days, is humbling, for I am convinced these men and women are some type of superhero. To be standing at the sorting table and plucking unlucky creepy crawlies and debris from grapes about to be destemmed and ready to begin the long journey of fermentation is humbling.  To watch the seasoned veterans of the cellar let their experience out to play as they debate amongst themselves what direction they want to take a blend, is humbling. To punch down[ii] the cap of skins that inevitably forms in our fermentation tanks and watch the CO2 escape from it in a witchy cauldron type of way, is humbling.

 

Harvest Intern Blog Pumpover Picture

To test alcohol densities daily and watch the contents of the tanks make the slow progression from a juice to a wine, and then to jump into action and transfer it into barrels at the last possible nanosecond, is humbling. To clean out the metal grates that collect the cellar debris and runoff after the end of a heavy fruit day, let me tell you, is humbling.

So you learn there is no shortage of lessons in the life of a harvest intern, there is no job you are unwilling to do, there is nothing you want to say no to because you want to be involved in it all, as simple as it sounds. You fall in love with it, the process of it. You are there for the beginning, middle, and after a year or two you get to taste the end to the manifestation of your blood, sweat, and espresso.

And the cellar crew at Tablas Creek has everything to do with that ease of falling in love.

The best sleep of my life has been after work days spent with the most ridiculously hilarious, vivacious people I could have ever even imagined. These people, these people made every day of harvest something I was eager to wake up for. From making fun of the men for their slow decline into caveman status as their harvest beards began to overrun their faces, to the inevitable glitter bombing and water wars of Kesha Fridays (shout out to my cellar gals), to the endless rounds of slow clapping if someone would be a bit too eager with a forklift, to the vineyard dogs that would intuitively sense you hitting that wall after hour nine and come up to let you lean into them for a moment, and most fondly to the five-star lunches our Winemaker Neil’s wife Marci (also known as Harvest Mama of the Year) would create, there are countless memories I now carry with me when looking back at my time in that cellar.

 

Harvest Lunch Picture for Blog Post

 

So as this years Harvest closes and my incentive to make hygiene a priority comes back, I can safely say that as sad as I am it is over, I am also utterly content because I get to continue existing here with those that have become family.

As the years have progressed I have grown to understand that the people make the place, the place does not make the people. And Tablas Creek feels at times otherworldly in its sense of community, its altruistic desire to extend that shared sense of self and love for cultivating wines to others in a manner I have never seen before. Before joining this company, yes I enjoyed wine and loved the nuance of it, its seductive fluidity that all wine drinkers can appreciate. But now wine is emotional to me. Seeing how much the Haas family has melded with this land, what they have done to ensure the honesty of their grapes is again, humbling. It is not about what could be easier, more cost-efficient, more along the lines of instant gratification that are all unfortunate aspects of vineyard management, and agriculture in general. For the Haases it is about ensuring that this place, and this type of winemaking will be here for our grandchildren and then their children after them. I believe that to strive for a better future that you will not even see, is true generosity. That generosity is why Tablas Creek has become what you see today.

So cheers Tablas Creek Harvest 2017, you didn’t always smell great but you sure changed my world.

 

References

  1. Harvest Hands, the decline of decent cuticles due to the inevitable blistering and blackening of your hands (and soul) as Harvest progresses.
  2. Punch downs, a form of Cap Management which is physically turning the grapes in the tanks to ensure the skins and the juice evenly ferment. Also the process that gave me my new biceps.

 


Our Skeptic's Embrace of Biodynamics

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of listening to John Williams from Frog’s Leap Winery speak at the Yosemite Vintners Holidays.  Although the focus of his talk was on how underrated “off” vintages are with some age (or, if you prefer, how the tendencies which lead most writers to rate a vintage highly can often make the same wines short-lived) the conversation soon turned to his thoughts on Biodynamics, of which he has been one of California’s most vocal proponents.  His take was that most of the things that receive focus for Biodynamics (think cow horns and lunar cycles) were little more than distractions, and what mattered in Biodynamic farming was that doing so reestablishes a plant’s ability to make sense of its environment and self-regulate.  I found the whole talk fascinating.

In the last seven years, spurred in part by what I learned at John’s talk, we have been increasingly incorporating Biodynamic elements into Tablas Creek’s farming practices. We’ve been organic since our inception, and certified since 2003, so it wasn’t as though we needed to make a massive move away from chemical-intensive agriculture.  But Biodynamics still requires a shift in mindset from organics.  Organics tends to look for non-chemical alternatives to the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that define modern industrial farming. And that’s a worthy effort. But Biodynamics, which begins with the assumption that you have eliminated chemical interventions already, is much more concerned with creating environments that are self-regulating, where even non-chemical interventions are mostly rendered unnecessary.

170309-APP-104_wOur flock at work in the vineyard (photo credit: Brittany App)

So, we introduced our herd of sheep and alpacas into the vineyard. The animals fertilize naturally with their manure and graze down cover crops so we need to make fewer tractor passes to eliminate weeds. We started interplanting fruit trees and herbs, leaving sections unmowed, and planting other sections with flowering herbs, to attract and retain a diverse group of insect species that help control pests and keep soils alive and vibrant. We increased from a dozen to 39 owl boxes, to control gophers. We built beehives and captured a wild swarm to help preserve this valuable resource. And we redoubled our efforts to produce our own compost on site from our prunings and the grape must left over from fermentation, both to spread on the vineyard and to make into compost tea, to spray on the vines to combat mildew.

Orchard at Tablas Creek 2One of the hundreds of fruit trees we've interplanted in the vineyard

We made these changes partly because it made sense to us from a resource management standpoint – why not try to make our farm unit as self-sufficient as possible – but also because the idea of putting as little as possible from the outside onto our vineyard appealed to our ideal of terroir: the character of place that, reflected in wine, is the holy grail of winemakers around the world. We figure that the less that goes onto the vineyard that originates elsewhere, the greater the chance that we can allow the signature of our own land to show.

Budbreak and Wildflowers 2Lupines are some of the native wildflowers we encourage to grow between the vines

In the last seven years, as we’ve incorporated these new practices, I have come to believe that you can separate the tenets of Biodynamics into three broad sections. I list them in what I think is the order of their importance, which just happens to be the inverse order of what most laypeople (and maybe more important, mainstream wine journalists) tend to focus on with Biodynamics:

  • A broad subset that is basically just really good farming. This includes the prohibitions on chemical interventions (to preserve biodiversity and ensure that your soil is able to break down raw materials into nutrients your vines can process). And the efforts to turn a monoculture into a polyculture (to ensure a healthy diversity of insects and microorganisms in the soil and to ensure habitat for the natural controls for pests). And the focus on composting (to turn the by-products of your farming into nutrients for your crops).
  • Another broad subset that includes the micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations. This is where the cow horns come in. For example, some preps are made by packing various natural products (such as manure, or silica) into the hollows of the cow horns, letting them mature for some time. Other preparations are made with botanicals, such as stinging nettles, horsetail, or chamomile, which are then composted, fermented, or dried.  Whatever the preparation, when applying it to your vineyard, you dilute it massively in water before spraying the resulting solution onto your vines. I think it’s safe to say that none of these actions will harm your crops, and they probably do a small amount of good. How much good can they do, when the prescription is to dilute 25 grams of manure in 13 liters of water (a ratio of 1:520)? Or 1/4 teaspoon of stinging nettle in 1 gallon of water (a ratio of 1:3072)?  I have my doubts, although chemical reactions can happen at much lower concentrations than this. But at least, I’m confident any impact these actions have on the vineyard are going to be positive.
  • A subset relating to the Biodynamic calendar. Here I think things are on tenuous ground. While it is incontrovertible that the moon, at least, does have some impacts on Earth (think the tides), the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth is roughly 1/300,000th of the pull of the Earth. Might it impact things like sap flow? I guess, in a tiny way. But I have to think that the lunar impacts will be dwarfed by the other stimuli a vine is receiving from things like length of daylight and soil temperature. And as for picking, I think it’s even harder to make a credible case that what’s going on in the heavens is going to make a difference in the characteristics of the fruit you pick. On the other hand, waiting for the calendar (published months in advance) to tell you when to pick can cause some damage if you’ve ignored the weather, say, during a heat spike. I think that all this is really best ignored.

So, when we decided to pursue Biodynamic certification late last year, we didn’t know whether the powers that be at Demeter (the international organization that administers and protects the Biodynamic trademark) were going to view what we were doing as sufficient, or whether we’d learn that we’d need to make significant (and perhaps unwelcome) changes to our practices in order to qualify.  We ended up deciding that if we needed to make changes in order to qualify for certification that we felt would jeopardize our vineyard or our wines, we wouldn’t lose much. After all, we’d done what we’d done so far without certification.

FoliageOne of our 39 owl boxes that help attract the gopher's most effective natural predator

But it was still tremendously encouraging to learn that Demeter itself had come to the conclusion that if a winery focused on the elements that I grouped together in the “really good farming” bullet above, and made a credible effort at those I classified as “micro-additions of Biodynamic preparations” it was good enough for them.  And so, we moved forward with the certification process.

And I do believe in certification. I think it’s great that many growers (and farmers) are pursuing organic or Biodynamic practices without any goal of becoming certified. The more people who are farming in an Earth-friendly way, the better. But at the same time, certification gives an outside validation that your practices aren’t lip service, and are being applied consistently and rigorously.

So, it is with pleasure and pride that I announce that Tablas Creek Vineyard is now Biodynamic certified. That includes the grapes we grow, the olives, eggs, and the vegetables in our staff garden, and even the lamb that we harvest a few times a year from our flock.

If this makes you happier about your choice to consume Tablas Creek, that’s great. If it doesn’t make any difference, that’s fine too. We’re confident that the proof is in the bottle.

Biodynamic Certification


Harvest 2017, the End

By Brad Ely

[Editor's note: this is the bookend to Cellar Master Brad Ely's Harvest 2017, the Beginning, posted on August 29th. If you haven't read it yet, you might want to.]

Last week marked the end of fruit for the 2017 vintage with three picking bins of golden Roussanne.  At the beginning of harvest we started with Viognier, and I would have never imagined the last fruit would be white as well. It sounds a cliche, but vintage variation is real, every harvest is different, and it is a beautiful thing.

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The colors of fall are taking over the vineyard. Green lush canopies are shedding leaves and changing colors, becoming gold, brown, auburn and maroon. Taking their winter vacation from a long and strenuous growing season.

Harvest heaved off with a shotgun start. Record breaking temperatures maxed out our thermometers for a week and a half straight, causing rapid ripening, and throwing the whole cellar crew into a frantic pace. Not the most ideal situation as many blocks are finishing veraison (the process of changing from hard green berries, to colorful soft berries with an accumulation of sugar). After the heat wave, we stalled out, with low temperatures pumping the breaks, and giving us cellar team shorter days, and almost whole weekends off. It was a false sense of relief, as temperatures climbed back up, leading to a hot and heavy finish.

Each harvest has its own feel, its own unique personality. While this holds true, each also has a similar roller coaster of emotions and checkpoints in store for us along the way, as the fruits of our labor twist and turn along their journey to liquid magic.

Things begin with feelings of joy and excitement. And it continues for a few weeks, getting back into the swing of things, brushing the dust off skills that haven’t been used since last year. Having the perfect aim with the bin dumper, trying not to lose a single berry, or spill a drop of wine. Remembering every process and procedure. Weighing incoming grapes, labeling tanks, setting up pump-overs, pulse airs, and punch downs in the most efficient order. Recognizing old smells, identifying new ones. Asking lots of questions, experiencing and learning along the way.

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Eventually these skills become second nature again. Before you know it the cellar is buzzing with the daily grind. Fruit arrives at the winery in white bins. It is weighed, sorted, destemmed if red, pressed if white, and sent to its new home for the next two weeks. After a two-week party, what was once juice escapes as wine, and finds its home in oak barrels and tanks for the next year and a half.

As the freshness of harvest wanes, these activities become the regular. Workdays grow longer and longer, arriving as the first light illuminates the vineyard, and leaving well after the sun has set back down. The limits of caffeine consumption are tested. Themed days of questionable music begin to emerge, as a marker to remember what day it was in the first place, and as a way to look forward to the next. Wednesday is Dubstep, followed by R Kelly Thursday, followed by Kesha and glitter Friday (my personal nightmare). Our beloved jamon leg is whittled to the bone, replenished, and whittled down once again.

There comes a point when the fun starts to diminish. Frustration develops, bodies weaken, and spirits dwindle. There is an amount of tired that starts to build, and even the soundest night’s sleep doesn't scratch the surface. Our stained purple hands begin to grow feeble and ache. Thumbs become dry, crack, heal, and then crack again. The slightest bit of contact with acidulated water results in a quick cry for mum. The standard for clean clothes becomes less stringent, and even the stained stuff will pass with a quick smell test. The hot water turns cold with hours of work to go, only to realize  the 12 hour timer set upon in the morning has times out, and it must be reset to continue on.

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Just as it seems the workflow will never end, and spirits are close to being broken, a clearing in the storm occurs. More tanks are being pressed off than being filled, and the constant buzz of the harvest equipment becomes faint. One by one each new wine marches off the cellar floor and into the barrel room, leaving empty spaces where they once resided.

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The last fermenters are dug with mixed emotions. A sense of relief, knowing two-day weekends, a regular sleep schedule, visits with family, and a restoration of social life are on the horizon. A reintroduction to civilization will occur, and we must adapt to normal life once again. As the tiredness fades, and our bodies are rejuvenated, a feeling of post harvest blues sets in. All of the feelings of glory and accomplishment flutter through our daydreams as we clean, and clean, and clean the scene where all of the action occurred. Any remaining dismal sentiment from the end of harvest is quickly forgotten, replaced by thoughts of the great times had, the friendships created, and the new wines quietly resting in barrel.

Eventually, these wines will find their resting places out of our hands, and in the cellars of their final consumers. When you pop a cork, we hope you feel the signature of the harvest with each glass poured. We can't wait for you to make its acquaintance.

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Harvest 2017 Recap: Fast Start and Finish, Solid Yields, and Plenty of Concentration

Last week, with the threat of our first rainstorm on the horizon -- key word here is threat, as it didn't pan out -- we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  And then, all of a sudden, we were done.  Sure, there are a few lots we're still waiting for, as they sit concentrating on straw in our greenhouse. But the picking, at least, is through. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Lunch on day of last pick

The harvest came in two large waves, with a significantly less busy stretch in between.  The first surge was kicked off by a record heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row in late August and early September, and included the majority of our purchased grapes for the Patelin de Tablas wines.  The slow interlude corresponded with nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. When, by early October, things heated up again (modestly this time) most of the late-ripening grapes on our estate were nearly ready, and we had a pretty continuous run between October 2nd and October 19th, picking 16 of 19 days in that stretch. You can see the double-peaked workflow in the chart below. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by Week - End

Yields were the best we've seen since the twin vintages of 2005 and 2006, up about 20% from 2016. On the one hand, this should be unsurprising, given that we got good rainfall last winter after five years of drought. But you still never know, and midway through the summer, we were all thinking that harvest was going to be at average or slightly above average quantities.  To have it among our most productive vintages ever was somewhat of a surprise. The complete picture:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc 9.7 7.7 +26.0%
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne 41.7* 47.0  -11.3%
Total Whites 152.7 123 +24.1%
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre 72.9 62.7  +16.3%
Tannat 20.5 12.3  +66.7%
Counoise 18.8 18.0 +4.4%
Total Reds 226.8 188.6 +20.3%
Total 379.5 311.6 +21.8%

Overall yields ended up at 3.62 tons per acre, about 20% above our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields around 3.5 tons per acre have included 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012, which includes some of our favorite vintages. Like 2005 (the vintage that this reminds me the most of) this year followed a multi-year drought, and the obvious health of the vines suggested that they were able to ripen the relatively healthy yields with concentration and character.

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there are two reasons. First is that there's still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. The second reason is that it's worth noting that at least some of the decline comes because we pulled out an acre or so of Roussanne this winter. We also pulled out a couple of acres of Syrah, but the Syrah total is augmented by the fact that the year before, we grafted over about two acres of Roussanne to Syrah.  So, Roussanne has seen a bit of a double-whammy in recent years. We'll be planting some more Roussanne soon.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. 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

You'll note that 2017's sugars saw a rebound after the lower levels in 2015 and 2016. This is a sign of the health of the vines. The higher pH levels seem to have been a result of the stress that the early-harvest heat wave produced, as well as a reflection of the overall warm summer.  In the 2017 growing season, only May was cooler than average, with April, June, and July particularly warm.  Overall, 2017 was our second-warmest year ever, just a hair cooler than 2014 and about 10% warmer (measured in degree days) than our 20-year average. The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 19 days, as we picked our last significant block on October 19th):

2017 Degree days vs Average

We picked even more lots this year (124) than last, and we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  Note the number of times that you see Roman numerals after a pick, particularly toward the end of harvest: those are the blocks that we picked multiple times:  

Full Harvest Chalkboard

The duration of harvest -- 54 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium. Both the beginning (August 30th) and the end (October 23rd) were a little earlier than our average since 2000, but not by much: about 4 days.  That said, we started later than we have since 2012, and finished later than 2013, 2014, and 2016. The fact that 2017 saw a later budbreak than recent years pushed everything into a more normal time frame than we've seen recently, but it was still a warm year.

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 his tastings, and his response was, "full, and great structure, and lovely acidity... just what we wanted it to be."  Given that Neil, like most winemakers, tend to focus on the shortcomings they see in the immediate aftermath of harvest, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2017 is to make our first Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge" since 2014.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Mourvedre clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Mourvedre we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation later this week. 

Vin de Paille Mourvedre

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the likelihood of future precipitation -- our first chance, it appears, may come as early as the first few days of November -- might negatively impact our harvest.

Foliage


Harvest at the Three-Quarter Pole: A Return to a More Normal Time Frame, with Solid Yields

Late last week, we welcomed our first major picks of Roussanne and Mourvedre into the cellar.

Roussanne in tank

Mourvedre in tankAnd with that, the home stretch of harvest officially began. There will be a lot of harvest chalkboards that look essentially like this one over the next couple of weeks:

Harvest chalkboard Roussanne and Mourvedre

Where we are, one week into October, is remarkably similar to where we'd expect to be, if we were predicting at the beginning of the year.  We're done with early grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc.  We're mostly done with what we consider mid-harvest grapes like Grenache and Tannat.  And we're just getting into our late grapes, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise.  Given that we're comparatively heavily planted in these late grapes, we still have more fruit out than many of our neighbors.  Still, we expect to be harvesting pretty steadily for the next two weeks, and to be done before the end of the month.  If this seems late, it's likely a matter of perspective, because most of our recent years have been early.  While 2013, 2014, and 2016 were all done by mid-October, our average finish date of harvest this millennium has been October 29th.

With the first complete blocks harvested, we've been able to get the animals back into the vineyard.  Right now, they're in the head-trained vines on our Scruffy Hill block, visible from Vineyard Drive if you're coming in from the south:

Animals back on Scruffy

Although we're where we'd expect to be in the harvest sequence, it hasn't always been smooth getting here.  Harvest began with a significant heat wave that sent temperatures soaring over 102°F nine days in a row.  We then got nearly three weeks of temperatures more than 5°F cooler than normal. In the last two weeks, temperatures have been more or less normal for the season, without any noteworthy heat waves, and with only one day significantly cooler than normal, a bizarrely chilly October 3rd where the sun didn't break through the fog until noon and the day topped out at 64°F:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal Sept Oct

For the month of September, we had 11 days warmer than seasonal averages, and 19 days cooler than average.  Even with the heat wave that began the month, our average high was 86.3°F, two degrees cooler than average. These cooler days allowed the vines to recover from the stress of their early-season heat wave, and allowed the cellar to free up tanks and get ready for the next push.  A graph of the harvest by week shows the ebb and flow. Normally, you'd expect a sort of bell curve, with thin tails at the beginning and end and the busiest weeks in the middle.  Not this year:

Harvest by Week

In terms of yields, with a significant number of grapes done, things are coming into focus.  It looks like yields are up from 2016, and a bit above average for the first time since 2012.  The varieties we've finished harvesting are up an average of 32.9%, with the most noteworthy recovery from Marsanne, whose yields had been so depressed by the five years of drought that we were getting less than one ton per acre last year:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2016
Viognier 18.9 14.2 +33.1%
Marsanne 13.8 4.5  +206.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 30.6 +51.6%
Picpoul Blanc ? 7.7 ?
Vermentino 22.2 19.0  +16.8%
Roussanne ? 47.0  ?
Grenache 73.1 58.8  +24.3%
Syrah 41.5 36.8  +12.8%
Mourvedre ? 62.7  ?
Tannat 18.3 12.3  +48.8%
Counoise ? 18.0 ?
Total so Far 234.2 176.2 +32.9%

Even with the higher yields, sugars are up a bit this year, which is a sign of the health of the vines.  Thank you, rainy winter!  The growing season, the yields, and the character and numbers of the grapes at harvest remind us most, so far at least, of 2005: also the first wet year after a string of dry years, with a long growing season and a relatively cool harvest period.  We aren't likely to go as late as we did that year -- November 7th -- but if we get a similarly robust vintage, we'll be happy. 

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the last couple of weeks of grapes on the vines. By the end of the month, we'll have to wait another year for views like this:

Counoise on the vine early October


Why Paso Robles is So Well Suited to Late-Ripening Grapes

This morning, when I got back to the winery after a week on the road, my first order of business was to check in on how harvest was going. I was happy to learn that things picked up a bit last week. After more than two weeks of chilly fall weather, it had warmed back up, with eight days of perfect ripening weather: daytime highs between 83°F and 93°F, and lows between 41°F and 51°F.

And still, when I asked Chelsea how she was feeling, she responded, "this is definitely the first October 1st I can remember where we haven't been stressing about tank space."  Although harvest picked up from the glacial pace it was in mid-September, we are still waiting on most of our Marsanne, Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.  Why? Blame the cold nights. Here's Neil, this morning, next to our first pick of Mourvedre. It was 52°F at 8:30am:

Neil looking chilly

We're used to this here, but most of the Mediterranean world is finishing up harvest about now. Beaucastel's Facebook page (for example) shows that they brought in their last fruit on September 29th:

It's not like this year is an outlier for us, either.  Over the last 15 years, we've averaged a last pick off the estate on October 29th, and our earliest-ever finish was October 7th in 2013.  Six times in those 15 years we were still picking in November. 

To explain why grapes take so long to ripen in Paso Robles, I'll have to detour briefly into some basic plant physiology. Bear with me here, or just skip to the end of the bullet points if you'd like the conclusions without the chemistry. There are a number of different processes which limit a grapevine's ability to photosynthesize at low temperatures. These include:

  • The tendency of plants to close their stomata (pores in the leaves) in response to cold, limiting respiration and the uptake of CO2
  • Carboxylation (sorry for the long, technical term) is the first stage of photosynthesis, whereby CO2 molecules are turned into an acid known as 3-PGA. Carboxylation efficiency declines as temperature declines
  • The electron transport capacity of plants is reduced at low temperatures
  • An enzyme known as Rubisco, essential to the first step of carbon fixation in photosynthesis, is inefficient at low temperatures

So, in essence, at cold temperatures, plants take in less CO2 and are less efficient in turning the CO2 that they do take in into the starches that fuel both plant growth and fruit ripening.  Grapevine ripening proceeds most efficiently between 30°C and 35°C (86°F and 95°F).  It drops dramatically below 25°C (77°F), and reaches zero at 10°C (50°F).  A summary graph from a technical paper published in Plant, Cell, and the Environment shows the combined effects pretty clearly:

Figure-7-CO2-saturated-maximum-rates-of-photosynthesis-meanSE-of-Semillon-leaves-as

For context, take a look at the temperature curve for the most recent 24 hour period:

Temperature C by Hour early October

You can see that while it did get warm, topping out around 30°C (86°F) yesterday afternoon, it only lasted until sunset just after 6pm.  By 8pm it was already down to 20°C (68°F). It bottomed out at 6.4°C (43.6°F) at 6am and wouldn't rise back up above 20°C until noon today.  So, over the last 24 hours, our vineyard spent 5 daylight hours over the 25°C temperature at which photosynthesis happens efficiently (2pm-6pm yesterday). Five other daylight hours (9am-1pm today) saw temperatures at levels where some photosynthesis can happen. Two daylight hours (7am-8am today) saw no photosynthesis at all because it was too cold.  And for 12 hours the sun was below the horizon. 

We are far from the only, or even the most extreme, location in Paso Robles.  The temperature grid from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance shows other areas that dropped near freezing last night.  Most show diurnal temperature swings of 40°-50°F. 

Temperature Grid October 2nd 2017

So, what does all this mean? That once you get into the end of the growing season here in Paso Robles, it's hard for grapevines to do too much photosynthesizing. That's a benefit, because you can get the last little bits of ripening on your late-ripening varieties slowly, so they continue to build complexity without accumulating too much sugar.  In general, the longer your grapes can stay on the vine before they get to the ripeness levels you want, the more complexity your wine has.  That's why a generally accepted bit of wine wisdom says that the best examples of different grape varieties can be found at the northern limit of their ripening range. So, the best Sauvignon Blancs tend to come from the Loire, and not Bordeaux. The best Pinot Noir tends to come from Burgundy, and not the Languedoc.  And the best California Chardonnay tends to come from cool coastal pockets where the fog slips in from the Pacific, not from the Central Valley.

Of course, at some point, you do need to get things ripe.  Grapes that don't make it to good ripeness produce wines that are green and bitter: no one's idea of a pleasurable drink. But here too Paso Robles has an advantage: that we don't tend to get our first serious rain until mid-November.  If we need to wait, we wait.

Hopefully, this particular waiting game is over for a while. But if it's not, I'm still confident we'll be OK. Thanks, Paso Robles.


A cool interlude slows down Harvest 2017 as we reach its mid-point

Ten days into the 2017 harvest, our winery crew was looking harried. Seven consecutive 105°+ days produced an avalanche of fruit. Right as we were genuinely wondering what we would do if the heat kept up, the weather broke, and now, two weeks later, it still hasn't really put itself back together. Take a look at our high temperatures compared to seasonal averages:

Avg Temps 2017 vs Normal

Since the heat wave broke on September 4th, we've had only two days above our seasonal averages, and the average high (84.1°) has been more than five degrees cooler than we'd expect.  At first, there was a bit of a backlog of fruit ready to pick, but by the time we got to this past weekend, we were back in waiting mode:

Harvest chalkboard interlude

To have a slower period like this in mid-September is a luxury. We've been able to free up tank space ahead of the next wave of fruit we know will be coming, and we've been able to spend a lot of time out in the vineyards testing, waiting for the right moment.  And the pace really has slowed.  After 110 and 142(!) ton weeks to start harvest, last week saw just 54 tons arrive at the winery, and we've only picked 16 tons so far this week.  

So, with 322 tons received, we're at or just past the mid-point on our harvest, based on our estimates. And now that we've finished picking some of our early grapes, it gives us a chance to assess where yields are compared to what we'd expected and compared to other years.  And things look solid. The 19 tons of Viognier we picked was up about 33% compared to 2016.  Vermentino (22 tons) is up about 15%. We're not quite done with Syrah, but the 33 tons we've picked is close to last year's 37 tons. The 4.7 tons of Marsanne we picked is almost identical to last year's 4.5 tons, though still very low.  Overall, I'm guessing we end up slightly up from last year's numbers, but not by much.

The cellar has been its usual dance, with fruit coming in (albeit at a more moderate rate) while other tanks are fermenting away and yet others are being pressed off to make space. One fun consequence has been that we have Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, and even Grenache Rose fermenting at the same time.  Check out the colors:

Three colors of grenache

The colors aren't only inside the winery. Outside the vineyard, it's starting to look -- as well as feel -- like fall.  As the vines start to lose chlorophyll, the autumn oranges and reds come out.  It's more dramatic on some grapes than others, but Syrah and Mourvedre are particularly lovely.  This Mourvedre vine is from right outside the winery; anyone coming to visit in the next few weeks should see a scene very much like this:

Mourvedre head trained

So, where are we, at harvest's mid-point?  Largely done with our Patelin picks, with the exception of some Mourvedre and a little Grenache and Syrah. Off our estate, we're done with our early whites (Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne) and mostly done with Grenache Blanc and Syrah. We've made a start on Grenache, and today got our first Tannat into the cellar. Next week, we'll turn in a serious way to Grenache, and maybe get started on the later-ripening Roussanne, Mourvedre and Counoise.

It feels somehow appropriate that we've filled in the left-hand column of our harvest chalkboard. With the forecast set for it to warm back up next week, it feels like we can dispense with the halftime entertainment and get on with the second half.

Chalkboard Sept 21

We'll be back for the second half kickoff, after this break.


Farming in the Blood: Q & A with Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker

By Lauren Phelps

Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker, is living the dream and savoring every moment. We get the inside scoop on what's it's like making wine in the cellar at Tablas Creek and what inspires this fifth generation farming native to evolve his skills into winemaking.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Luis Obispo and raised in Templeton.  We spent a couple years in Shandon.  My dad farmed hay on a couple flats around where the Target is now in Templeton.  My brothers and I started helping my dad when we were really little.  My twin brother and I were the youngest of four.  I remember how we couldn’t use the hay hooks, because we were too small, and my brother and I would push the bales to get them closer to the truck so our bigger brothers could help pick them up.  Eventually we got big enough that we could throw them up into the truck with hooks.  Then as we got older we’d get into the truck and help from there.  Growing up in this area, that’s just the kind of stuff we did. 

When and how did you get into wine?
1996 was my dad’s first year of getting fruit off his vines so I started helping out with that when I was young.  Later, when I was in my twenties, I worked at a steakhouse and met a lot of winemakers.  I was bartending and they were always a really cool crowd of people, so I figured I wanted to try working in the wine industry.  I started my wine career in the barrel room at Meridian where they put me on a machine spinning and washing barrels all day- that’s all I did, it was very monotonous.  From my work station, I could see the guys on forklifts, which looked like a lot more fun, so I eventually moved up to a position that allowed me to drive alongside them.   The forklift work was essentially racing around as fast as I could; it was intense, trying to go faster than the other guys without dropping barrels- it was a challenge but it was a blast.  I took two years off after that harvest and then got a job working in the cellar at Justin Winery where I worked for a couple of years.

What has been your career path to where you are?
While working at Justin I would do weekend events with Chef Jeffery Scott.  We did a few events at Tablas Creek, which is where I met the Tablas Winemaker, Neil Collins.  Neil was a really nice guy and we got along well.  After a few years I was looking to work somewhere where there was more variation and smaller lots to work with.  I reached out to Neil, who said there was an opening at Tablas Creek.  I got the job in 2013, and I worked my way up from Cellar Assistant to Cellar Master and now Assistant Winemaker.

In your view, what makes working in the Tablas Creek cellar special?
It’s got to be working with new varieties, and being with a winemaker and crew that’s open to experimenting.  We don’t have any sort of regimentation in the cellar here, so we’re able to figure out what we like on our own terms.  We’re working with wines that don’t have an established legacy here in the United States and we’ve been given the opportunity to help write their history.  It’s really fun seeing what comes in the doors every day during harvest. 

Craig Edit

What’s your biggest challenge as Assistant Winemaker?
My biggest challenge is part of what I really like about working at Tablas.  It’s working with these new grape varieties and building a log of history and maintaining it with each new vintage and with each variation we try in the vineyard and in the cellar.  My challenge is noting these details, because up to this point all we had was what was in Neil’s head, his knowledge and experience. I’ve been challenging myself to learn more about these varieties and organizing written notes that we can use for years to come.

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
I prefer rustic, country style wines, you know- easy drinking country wines.  I love Tablas, so I drink a lot of our wine.  I like Pinot a lot, I’ve worked a lot of World of Pinot events and I really like tasting those.  Papapietro from Sonoma Coast makes killer Pinot Noir.  And I really like Demetria in Los Olivos, they’re really fun and nice to visit and big fans of Tablas too.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
I'd probably pick the Grenache Blanc for the white because it maintains a great balance between richness and texture without going too far in either direction.  For red, I’d choose En Gobelet not only because I love the wine, but also because I’m really into the story behind the wine.  The farming technique employed to make that wine is really important in the narrative of the future of California winemaking, I think.  Those would be two solid wines I could drink with each meal.

How do you like to spend your days off?
Now my days off are pretty much spent taking Jackson, my two-year-old son, to the beach.  We play soccer, kick the ball around a little bit.  It’s something we’ve both been into.  My free time is spent hanging out with the little man. I used to love to go surf, once he gets old enough I’ll get him out on a board. My fiancée Annika and I spend a lot of time traveling and even more cooking together and learning to pair wine with the new cuisine.

Craig 2

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I guess probably that my Great-Great-Grandfather lived out in the Adelaide. They were part of the Mennonite train that came out here.  So my family’s been here six generations.  That’s a lot of history, and roots in the farming community.

How do you define success?
You’ve got to be happy with the people you work with and the job you do and I think Tablas does a great job at creating that atmosphere.  It’s amazing.  When you walk around working and you just smile and realize, hey I’m at work and I’m really happy, I think that’s success.

Craig 3