On a foggy morning in August, we began picking Pinot Noir in Rosemary’s Vineyard. We picked a little shy of 2 tons that day and with the cool conditions were able to sleep in and start at 6:30am. The exact date was the 22nd of August; with the cool summer we had experienced we had thought our harvest would begin a week or two later. Typically, our harvest runs about 6 weeks, so on the 22nd we all felt excited to be done by Halloween. I’ve got two young kids, so Halloween is a good benchmark for me to be liberated and able to walk blissfully house to house, with the kids in whatever the hell costume they’ve come up with and my favorite libation hidden in an insulated coffee mug. (Lately it’s been Spritzes with ½ Campari and ½ Aperol- I’m a sucker for light Italian cocktails)
Returning to the topic at hand, heres what actually happened. Mother Nature took our dreams of finishing harvest by Halloween, crumpled them into a metaphorical wad of newspaper, and tossed tossed dreams into a metaphorical dumpster fire that quickly consumed any thought of wrapping up harvest in the usual amount of time. After 10 whole weeks of waking up in the middle of the night to pick grapes, we “wrapped up” harvest on November 12th, my youngest kid’s 4th birthday. It was one for the books!
Why the long harvest? Well, remember my mention that it was a cool summer? It’s ok if you don’t, I’ll say it again. It was a cool summer meaning it took a while for some vineyard blocks to ripen and prior to plants going through veraison (the ripening process of grape berries) there was a long berry development phase. With all that extended time prior to ripening, fruit clusters got big, especially in the Chardonnay blocks. The result was that harvest continued on and on, early mornings and long days continued, and our team tried not to get sick of each other.
Luckily, we have an amazing crew here at Talley Vineyards and we found ways to keep motivated and pick on! In the end, we brought in a lot of fruit, we are very pleased with the quality, and we can finally call harvest complete!
On July 3rd of this strange year, we hit 60 degrees in the Arroyo Grande Valley. The sun decided to take the day off and sleep the day under the thick covers of the occasional “No-Sky July” marine layer. This was kind of the norm for most of the spring, except for the North winds that blow the marine layer out in the afternoon. These winds start to lighten up by May, allowing the May Gray to linger a little longer past 10am. By June, you get the occasional all day June Gloom, but it usually starts blowing out with gentler winds by 10am. That’s pretty much it: marine layer until 10am, stronger winds until June, calm winds after that, temps ranging from 50’ to the high 70’s, and occasionally you’ll see temps hit the 90’s. However, this year was different. Mostly cool temps with the marine layer hanging later in the day: a cool vintage.
So three days later from that cool day in July, there was not a cloud in the sky and the temps were a raging 107 degrees by 10 in the morning in the Arroyo Grande Valley. It was HOT. The air was hot, the ground was hot, the wind was hot, and of course the plants were hot. We’ve experienced occasional temps in the 100’s, and as stressful as it is- we usually come out ok. Our protocol is to put a little water out (1-2 gallons per plant) to help the plants deal with the stress of the heat. We also pull leaves in the fruit zone on the morning sun side as it’s the side that will receive sunlight at the coolest time of the day. Leaf pulling is done to allow air flow on the fruit to naturally keep moisture off the fruit and preventing mildew. It also allows sunlight to penetrate and help the ripening process. (I strongly recommend reading Sunlight Into Wine, by Richard Smart and Mike Robinson, to any aspiring viticulturalist looking to understand vineyard canopy management)
Unfortunately, this particular heat wave saw temperatures rise to 110 degrees before noon. It was too hot for some Pinot Noir blocks, regardless of our normal heat wave procedures and we had some berries go from unripe green berries to dried-up raisins in a matter of days. That 10 degree increase at an early point in the day was too much for the thin skinned berries of Pinot Noir. Fortunately it was just isolated to a few areas, but regardless it was heartbreaking to see good fruit burn.
As for it affecting our wine quality, the dried fruit is getting cut out before it even has the chance to make it to the sorting tables come harvest time. We are beginning to drop under ripe fruit as our Pinot blocks are around 80% verasion: “change of color of the grape berries; ie ripening”. With the green drop, we’ll be cutting out the dry fruit so you can expect the same quality that you expect from Talley wines!
February in the Arroyo Grande Valley is typically characterized by ample amounts of rain followed by green hills. But this February in the AGV, we’ve seen weeks of temperatures nearly triple digits followed by freezing this week. At this time last year, the vines were all dormant and we were at around 266 growing degree days. Checking Weather Underground this morning, we’re already at 443 growing days. At this date last year, we had received more the 27 inches of rain. It was an exceptional rain year, but the less than 3 inches of rain received so far in 2018 is beyond depressing.
As a result, the hills have not turned that familiar, almost electric neon green and we’ve experienced some early bud break. Bud break in mid-February is not great because of the chance it can be followed by cold weeks like this one. This week has been exceptionally cold with temperatures as low as 25 degrees in spots. The frost conditions damage the tender buds, severely deforming the growth that becomes plant shoots and fruit, so we use wind machines and overhead sprinklers for protection. The wind machines circulate air, pushing the cold air out of the plant zone. Meanwhile, the overhead water creates ice that acts as a layer of insulation over the plants. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is actually the better of the two methods.
My crew and I will be keeping a close eye on the vineyard blocks that saw early bud break, inspecting for any damage to the buds. A couple of us have been working through the night, turning on the wind machines and water to protect the plants. We’re all very hopeful that we will have a wet March, because it has been a very challenging February.
The grapes are all harvested, the leaves are changing colors and they are beginning to fall from the vines; all signs that another growing season has come and gone at Talley Vineyards and it is time to put the vineyard blocks to bed. It seems like we should kick back after picking the fruit (and it would be super great if we could), but this is a very important and busy time in the vineyard. This is the time when we rip vineyard rows and spread compost and, most importantly of all, we sow our cover crops.
Our cover crops are hugely valuable to our vineyards in a multitude of ways. For one, they root in the soil and keep sediment from eroding downhill, preserving the soil structure of our vineyards and neighboring roads. They also attract beneficial bugs, such as lacewings, as well as beneficial mycorrhizae with their roots. Mycorrhizae are “the symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant.” These fungi colonize the root system, making it easier for plants to absorb water and nutrients, which is clearly vital.
The types of cover crops we plant vary based on the unique needs of individual vineyard blocks. The majority of our blocks are planted with a legume and oat seed mix. The legumes are great for adding nitrogen to the soil that will be used during the vine growing season. The oats add organic matter to our vineyards’ soils and, in turn, the bacteria and fungi in the soil decompose the organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide and nutrients that the vines can use. Some vineyard blocks get a cover crop of oats, vetch, and beans. This particular seed mix is helpful in the same ways as the legume and oats, but is additionally good for aerating soils with the deep root system of the vetch plants. This aeration helps break down heavy clay soils, helping us when it comes time for tillage in the spring.
It isn’t easy to be busy sowing cover crop when everyone is tired after harvest. However, we know that the work we do now is vital to the health of our vineyards and will benefit us in the long run.
It’s Friday, January 20, 2017, and I just made it to my office after driving around the ranches. I’m soaking wet but my space heater is on and I have a cup of tea to my left. It was an adventure filled time checking drains as we received an inch of rain in less than an hour. This is very good for our area that has been lacking a good rainy season, but my-oh-my, it’s crazy out there! Looking at our rain totals here for the Rincon ranches, we’re at 19.48” for this year! That’s 2 inches less than the fabled year-average that we haven’t seen in awhile and we’re only the middle of January!
|Vines After rainy Friday morning.|
This is all very good news for a multitude of reasons. One thing is less irrigation water that we will need to put out on our grapevines. At Talley Vineyards, we encourage deep rooting by deficit irrigating. In lay person terms, we water to a minimum to force our vines to seek water. They do this by sending their roots deeper into the soil. This is where our vines really find the soil profile that creates the terroirs that are unique to our wines’ flavor profiles. This is great for the quality of the wine but can be very difficult from the farming perspective. Those lower soil zones are where salts get trapped and these salts can affect vine health. This can affect yields and plant development. These big downpours and consistent rain do a great job pushing these salts down, greatly helping the health of our vineyards.
It’s exciting start to 2017, indeed! I’m looking forward to farming this season with a closer to normal rain year and we should see some outstanding wines come out from it! Cheers!
What began on the third day of August, finished up this last weekend on the first day of October. Two straight months of sleep deprivation, hard work, and compromised immune systems ended as we picked our last blocks of grapes. Some refer to this season as “vintage”, but we’re a farm-centric vineyard and winery, and we refer to it as HARVEST. Harvest is the culmination of all the work and input we’ve brought into our vineyards from the previous year. It’s hard as hell and can be quite frustrating when Mother Nature throws you a curve ball, but it’s also pretty freaking awesome to see the fruits of your labor. No pun intended, because I think that saying was meant for this kind of thing.
For the majority of our harvest, we had perfect weather conditions. Clear, cool night starts at 2am would get us on our way. At around 4 in the morning, the marine layer would come in and keep the fruit and pickers cool into the early daytime. With a lot of help from winemaker Eric Johnson, we were able to have a good heads up on picks and get in those blocks to pick the fruit just right. Everything was going just great, and then we got a 4 day heat wave at the end of September. This heat wave suddenly made blocks that we thought would be ready in a week, ready to be picked immediately. We scrambled, we huddled, we got a plan, and we picked nonstop. The fruit came in and we were done.
To anyone in the wine world, you’ve probably noticed a great deal of hype around harvest. That hype is no joke. For grape growers and winemakers, picking the grapes at the right time is crucial and can be close to impossible at times. However, you find a way to get it done. You dig in and work beyond what you normally think is possible. Sometimes, it means running down to the local coffee shop and buying coffee for 36 pickers to keep them going and 6 dozen donuts to show them our appreciation. I personally go through a box of 5-hour energy that’s supplemented with a lot of Emergen-C.
Now that we’re done, it’s our time to button up the vineyard but more importantly show our appreciation for the people who make up my vineyard team. We have our own taquero at Talley Farms, Juan Rico, who will make unlimited tacos for our crew, production team, and winery staff. It’s a great day for everyone to meet up, play soccer, eat, and enjoy the end of another successful season.
On any given day of driving around the vineyards, I will see quite a few different species of mammals (besides the human kind), reptiles (besides the human kind, again), amphibians, and insects. Some of these critters are not the most welcome inhabitants of our vineyards, such as the California Ground Squirrel, pocket gophers, and leaf hoppers. Ground Squirrels and gophers love burrowing under our vines and chewing on things that we’d rather not have them eat and destroy. Leaf hoppers like to chew on leaves, which reduce the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. Fortunately, we have things like hawks, snakes, coyotes, barn owls, and lacewings. These predators help us keep the pest population down. They also work for free!
Our farm ecosystem is something we hold near and dear. One way that we encourage biological means of pest control is with our owl boxes that our placed throughout the vineyards. These nocturnal creatures can be seen swooping just above our canopy during the night and early morning hours. They do a great job of keeping the nocturnal vertebrate pests in check, like gophers, field mice, and voles. Typically, a barn owl will eat 3-4 rodents a night, which can amount to 4000+ rodents a year to feed them and their offspring! We don’t use any poison to kill gophers in our vineyard, because we don’t want to poison the owls.
Most of our new owl boxes are made by Walt Weller of Central Coast Owl Boxes. Walt is a very friendly gentleman, who crafts his owl boxes to very high standards. His boxes have a separate room to keep offspring safe from predators. They are painted with UV resistant paint to keep the owls cool, and they are very easy to clean and maintain. Walt loves to visit Talley Vineyards and checks his boxes for inhabitants, providing a list of all the new inhabitants every spring!
In 2014, Talley Vineyards officially became SIP certified. The Sip Certification, which stands for Sustainability in Practice, is a “rigorous sustainable vineyard and wine certification with strict, non-negotiable requirements committed to standards based on science and expert input, independent verification, transparency, and absence of conflict of interest.” As rigorous as some of the SIP requirements are, we were already farming and making wine to many of these standards, and just needed to officially document the way we do things here. Some of the sustainable practices we implement on the vineyard side are new, but many are things we’ve been doing for awhile.
One of the practices we’ve used for years in our vineyards is cover cropping in and around our vineyard blocks. We cover crop to help with erosion on the steep hills that we grow our grapes in and to improve the soil structure. This last year we seeded most blocks with a cover crop that consisted of oats and bell beans. The oats have powerful root structures that help open up the soil as they grow, while the bell beans add nitrogen to the soil as they are disked back into the soil. These cover crops add not only nitrogen to the soil, but they are a great source of organic matter that gets mixed back into the soil. This helps with biodiversity in the soil and root development of our grapes. Over time, this practice improves our soil structure as each year a new crop of grasses and legumes are tilled into the soil.
One of our newer viticultural practices that we’ve implemented is the discontinued use of herbicides. We have been an herbicide free vineyard since 2015. We decided to move away from herbicides as part of our commitment to sustainability. We’ve noticed certain weeds developing resistance to herbicides, and instead of trying stronger chemicals, we decided to go herbicide free. Besides the lack of chemicals in our soil, we’ve witnessed a huge improvement in the tilth under the vines. This is because of the three different tractor implements and good-old fashioned hoeing that is now consistently turning the soil under the vines. Each implement works best in different blocks, depending on the soil structure, terrain, and growth of the weeds. The newest, most versatile, and by far the best of these implements is the Clemens Weed Knife. This Clemens consists of two blades that are at the end of hydraulic arms. These arms extend, or contract, depending on the width of the vineyard row. The knives cut just below the surface of the ground below the vines, cutting weed at their nutrient leaching roots. The final product is a weed-free soil that is chemical free!
|Preparing East Rincon Soil for planting before it rains.|
We wrapped up the earliest harvest ever for Talley Vineyards in September and took advantage of our early post-harvest downtime to begin on our new vineyard development in the East Rincon Vineyard Blocks 3 and 5. This planting is planned for 2017, but with our drought conditions and the hope for lots of rain this winter, we decided to get the big dozers in and fracture some dirt while it’s dry. The soils on this specific site are shallow Los Osos- Diablo Clay Loam soils with a lot of serpentine rock below. It took some extensive dirt work to break through the rocky sections of this site but the vines will be very happy with it as it allows their roots to move deeper into the soil sub-sections. This area, known as regolith, is the horizon of soil that consists of parent material from the underlining bedrock and greatly contributes to the terroir of wines.
|Talley team with Jeffery Patterson at Mount Eden Vineyards.|
This coming spring, we will be planting out new Pinot Noir sites in mostly West Rincon and one Chardonnay site at the very top of East Rincon. This site in East Rincon will be planted with Chardonnay clones from the iconic Mount Eden Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A team of us had the wonderful opportunity to meet Jeffrey Patterson at his special vineyard and talk some shop. We are very much looking forward to planting these clones this spring. Although, we’re probably looking forward more to the wines that take on the unique characteristics that develop from the ideal Chardonnay growing conditions of the Arroyo Grande Valley!
The Pinot Noir grapes are dark, the Chardonnay is golden, the canes lignifying throughout, and there is a grumble coming from the production staff. This could only mean one thing: harvest is coming. Harvest is a time we all love and hate. It is hard work, it is complete chaos, and it’s possibly the most rewarding part of the year.
In the cellar, all harvest specific pieces of equipment are coming out of a 9 month hibernation. Cellarmaster Nacho Zarate will begin by moving the fermenters and harvest bins out of the storage barn. He will likely be driving the forklift without a shirt and will definitely be complaining about the vineyard equipment in his way. One of the first tasks for the newly hired harvest interns is to clean this equipment. On day one they will get badly sunburned and on day two they will wear sunscreen and a big hat. The interns will also start learning about harvest by listening to the veteran production crew’s complaints of “having no life” and “not getting enough sleep” in the coming days. Seriously, that is all they talk about…
In the vineyard, it is the calm before the storm. The crew is wrapping up viticultural practices like tucking vines, bird nets, and dropping fruit that is ripening slower than the rest. Our equipment is being serviced and we’re ordering the rented lights that will illuminate night picks. It is also time to ready FYBs, the yellow buckets that we pick into. They are such bright yellow they seem to taunt us, screaming “Harvest is coming!” Because of this, everyone hates the FYB’s, so while I will refrain from explaining the entire acronym in this classy, family-oriented blog, you can probably guess what it stands for.
As the work continues, the production and vineyard teams’ preparation begins to overlap more and more, and there are regular discussions between the winemaker and vineyard manager. The interns are sent to collect grape clusters that will show us the sugar content, cluster weight, pH, and acids of the fruit and we all come together to analyze the results. Our harvest anticipation builds and bets are made about what will be picked first until Brian Talley and Winemaker Eric Johnson give the final “GO!” and harvest begins!