Dry Spell (continued)…

Monday, February 24th, 2014

DSC01146We are certainly in a serious statewide drought here in California. It looks like the driest stretch in about 500 years, and it is without doubt the driest since records have been kept – 150 years or so in most locations. There have been historical super droughts that can be seen in tree ring records that have been 10-20 years in length, but that’s just too scary to even contemplate.

It needs to be borne in mind that local conditions and resources are extremely important. Just look at local municipalities in our county. Cambria, a small coastal hamlet to the north of us is on track to be pretty much out of water in late spring or early summer, the City of San Luis Obispo on the other hand has a seven and a half year supply at the moment. Different areas of the state have been more or less proactive about both conserving and storing water so the effects are varied. Mostly urban water will be prioritized, and no one expects that major city supplies will run dry. Very small towns may struggle, but will in general find solutions. Agriculture is another story. Ag uses about 80% of the water in California. Much of that is used in historically arid and warm interior areas where canals and pipe systems bring water specifically for crop use. A lot of these interior ag areas served by Federal and State water projects are in for a rough year. Recent rains in Northern California have helped the Sierra snowpack, but it is unlikely it will reach average this year.

Viticulture in general is conservative in its use of water compared to other crops. Grapevines are naturally drought tolerant, I personally worked with a dry farmed vineyard through the last major drought in ‘86-92, and that vineyard survived just fine. Grapevines use far less water even when fully supplied than most other crops. They use about a ¼ of what row crops use for example. Winegrowers in coastal areas have used drip irrigation for years, which is the most efficient system from a water conservation point of view.

Here most locally we depend on underground aquifers for our water. The Edna Valley has a relatively shallow aquifer, but it recharges easily because of the large area of hills around it that drains down into it. This aquifer had been in good balance for a long time. Unlike Paso Robles just north of us where the aquifer has been overdrawn for many years before the current drought.

We had to put winter irrigations on this year to keep the roots moist which is unusual, but the aquifer is in good shape at the moment. We can expect more rain for the next 4-8 weeks after which we will assess the situation. We do not absolutely need more rain in order to irrigate the vines, but we do need rain to flush out the soils and refresh them. When you irrigate salts tend to build up in the top layer of the soil. This has to be carried out of the root zine by rainfall. There’s virtually no way for us to flush the soils ourselves using irrigation. Only generous rainfall will accomplish this.

Water conservation is one aspect of our green and sustainable initiatives here at Tolosa. It was the first practice we put into place many years ago. Every drop of water that the winery uses is treated through a three pond system until it is clean enough to be returned to the vines.

– Tolosa Winemaker, Larry Brooks

Dry Spell?

Friday, January 31st, 2014

I recall in my first or second year as a winemaker asking a neighboring vineyard owner if this was a “normal year.” As I had little experience with effects of weather on vintage at that point I desired to know where the year fit within the spectrum of vintages. Like many things in wine growing his response surprised me, when he replied “There’s no such thing as a normal year.”

This year certainly is proof of that. We are well into a 3-year dry spell, and this fall and mid-winter are the driest I have seen in my 36 vintages, and according to most weather records the driest conditions for most of California in more than one hundred years. It is strange to be here in late January and not have a bit of cover crop growing in the vine rows and not a blade of grass evident in the hills. The aquifer that we draw from here in the Edna Valley is not particularly large or deep, but it does have the pattern of recovering quickly when it is drawn down. With any luck we will receive spring rain, as the rainy season is only half over at this point. Each and every year we have to farm to the season and we will do the same this year. I farmed in Carneros through the ’86-’92 drought with good success, and it is comforting to think that particular drought ended with monumental rainfall in March of ’92.

The wines are intriguing this time. The greatest of them is the 2011 “1772” Chardonnay. I’vevineyardwater4 talked before about this vintage, which I consider one of the very finest I’ve had the privilege to make. The extraordinarily small crop combined with a cold dry year made for perfect Chardonnay at every level, and this “1772” our highest level wine is exceptionally fine and classy. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc has just been bottled and by the time you have a taste it will be a month or so along. I’m quite a fan of this wine in general and also of this vintage. It is one of our nicer ones, being on par with the 2008.


–Larry Brooks, Tolosa Winemaker

Pinot Noir Clones

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Larry's TourClones are only a relatively important part of the flavor makeup of Pinot Noir. I would say they rank roughly somewhere between 4th and 6th in terms of their influence on the wine’s flavor and quality. For whatever reason, it is something people focus on. Far more important from a flavor point-of-view, are soils, which I would rank 1st, and farming and root-stock which I would rank 2nd and 3rd. But people are interested in the subject, that here is some detail about how clones or selections play into our quality and style here at Tolosa.

We have more than 20 different blocks of Pinot scattered over our ranches. By trial and error we have found the top 12 or so, that reliably make the best wine every year. Here are the selections that are found in these blocks. There are of course others that are planted here and elsewhere that work perfectly well, but these are what work for us. I’ve listed them in order of their relative abundance.

Pommard – not a clone per se, but rather a selection. I’m pretty sure that we have Pommard 4, but not certain. This is the dominant selection in Oregon and is the majority planted in California as well. It tends to make small clusters, and where we have it planted it is low yielding. It is considered a “structural” selection in the sense that it makes a good base for blends bringing color extract and tannins. In some cases on the correct soil, it can also express great aromatic finesse, but this is the exception rather than the rule. We have extensive plantings of this on the Mountainside portion of our Edna Ranch and some on a sandy slope of the Oceanside portion. Our “Lily Gil” Pinot Noir has traditionally been selected from this, but is not “typical” of this selection. In most years this is the dominant selection for the Estate bottling.

Dijon 667 – this is a clone selected in Burgundy, France. We have extensive plantings of this here at the Winery Ranch, both right in front of the winery and also on the northern boundary. This tends to make a complete wine with good color, tannin and fruit flavors. It is in most years, it has small berries and a low to moderate yield. Our “Marley Anne” Pinot Noir is typically dominated by this selection. This clone is a significant player in the Estate and “1772” bottlings.

Dijon 115 – this is a Burgundy clone. All of these are named for the experiment station in Dijon where they were selected in cooperation with Burgundy wine producers. We have a large block of this in front of the Winery and another block on the Mountainside area. This clone is one of the earliest selected in Dijon. It tends to make a very aromatic or what the French would call a feminine wine. It can be productive depending on soil and in some areas it need thinning. This clone is playing an increasing role in the Estate bottling, and has been used in the “1772” and Marley Anne bottlings as well.

2A – this is a bit confusing around here. Clone 2A is a Swiss selection, but what is called 2A in this area bears no resemblance to the 2A I’ve worked with in Carneros, and does not fit the clone’s description at all. I believe that what is called 2A around here is actually a field selection out of Tally’s vineyard that got misidentified when it was propagated. It tends to be very small berried, low yielding and is late to ripen. The stems can be quite tasty. It reacts strongly to the vintage and only makes grade A wine in the best years. We have bottled it separately as “Beyond” and it has been used in some “1772” and most Estate bottlings. We have a large block of this on the Mountainside vineyards and some here at Winery.

Dijon 113 & 114 – we have only tiny 1-acre blocks of each of these, 2013 was the first year we used them. They both made really nice wines! I think they are best suited for clonal bottlings and perhaps our newest Pinot Noir, “Aethereal.” They produced wine with abundant color and flavor last year, but only time will tell if they do that year in and year out. Dijon 114 has the distinction of being the most planted clone of Pinot worldwide.

Clone 23 – this is another Swiss selection. We have not used this yet, but I am planning on trying some next year. Stay tuned!



Larry Brooks

Outstanding in the Field

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

To say that this was an unusual dinner would be a gross understatement. Sunday afternoon Tolosa was the featured winery for a dinner put on by Outstanding in the Field. The basic concept of these meals is to put them on in close proximity to the source of the food. The Morro Bay Oyster Co. was the featured food provider so improbable as it sounds a dinner for 100 was set up, cooked and served on the Morro Bay sand spit just across the harbor entrance from Morro Rock. The weather cooperated with mild sunny weather. Anyone who knows the local climate knows there’s almost always wind along the coast. Everyone got some sand in their wine glasses and sand on their plates, but curiously no one seemed to mind. I think that was a testament to how good the food was and how spectacular the setting. We all hung out on the beach for the first hour or so. Re-Find spirits from Paso served some fruit based cocktails as a starter and Tolosa 2012 Rose of Grenache was the beach wine. Roasted artichokes and oysters straight out of the water were passed around. We moved to the single long table set in the low dunes just behind the beach next. The table described a single graceful curve. I’m pretty certain that’s the longest table I’ve ever eaten from. Clark Staub from Full of Life Flatbread was the chef, and it was his inspiration to site the dinner where it was. The food was super, from the salad that started it through the two kinds of pizza, and then on to black cod for the main, and finishing with a quince dessert, every dish was inventive and delicious. The wines requited themselves nicely. The 2012 Pinot Gris opened up against the salad, then a pre-release tasting of the 2011 Block 569 Chardonnay with the pizzas that impressed everybody. The 2011 1772 Pinot Noir, also pre-release offset the black cod beautifully. Finally we served a barrel sample of the 2012 Viognier Port. This rare type of dessert wine really got everyone’s attention. The company and conversation also were at a high level and as the sun was setting we made our way back to the dock via water taxi, wind burned and filled with good food and wine.

- Larry Brooks, Winemaker

Outstanding in the Field Dinner TableOutstanding in the Field Sunset in Morro Bay

Outstanding in the Field Wine and Food

2013 Harvest Re-Cap

Monday, October 28th, 2013

This morning, as the first Arctic system brings sporadic showers to the valley, seems like a good time to re-cap the 2013 harvest. We knew from fairly early in the season that we were going to have a larger than average sized crop. The cluster weights we took at lag phase and veraison both indicated a crop that would be 15-20% above the average. That prediction turned out to be conservative. The actual crop was 20-30% higher than averPinot Noir Harvestage with a good bit of variation at the varietal and vineyard block level. This large crop was a result of ideal weather during the late spring when the clusters bloom and set. If an individual berry fertilizes more seeds then it has the potential to be bigger and make for a heavier cluster. It was not unusual to find three or four seeds per berry this year instead of the normal one or two. In some parts of the vineyard cluster weights were higher than we’ve ever seen. Large crops are worrisome. They take longer to ripen, and hence are more exposed to hazards of the weather. In retrospect we need not have worried as weather conditions through September and October were ideal. There was little fog, and no rain. There were no significant heat spells, and ripening proceeded in a controlled and orderly manner. A very basic worry with a large crop is how to fit it all into the winery. Again, the weather treated us kindly as the moderate temperatures resulted in an orderly evenly paced harvest, and we were never forced into the situation of having to press off a tank early in order to make room for the next fruit to be picked.

The last big harvest, 2005, made red wines that were light in color and lean in structure. This is a common characteristic of bountiful harvests, and it was what we were expecting from 2013. But, with wine what you expect is rarely what you get. The red wines from this vintage are well colored and  sturdily structured from a phenolic point of view. It seems that the 2013 is one of those rarest of harvests in which the vines achieve both quantity and quality. While it is far too early to say with any certainty, at this point they remind me of the 2008 wines. I am speaking mainly of the Pinot Noirs our primary red wine. We have 25 distinct lots of Pinot Noir this year, which will make for a large variety of choices come blending time in the spring. As in 2008, the Syrahs looks exceptionally dark and rich, and they may well turn out to be the stars of the vintage.

The white wines frCA Chardonnay Harvest om the estate look fine. With Chardonnay you honestly can’t tell for almost a year whether the wines will be good or something better than that. A good recent example of this phenomena was the 2010 Chardonnays, which were quite lackluster in barrel and bottle until suddenly they exploded with flavor about six months after bottling. I can say with confidence that there’s nothing wrong with this year’s Chardonnay. The lighter more aromatic white wines look promising. Many of them are just going dry as I write. The Viognier and Pinot Gris are tasty at the moment. We have some solid Sauvignon Blanc and two excellent roses, both the Grenache of prior years as well as a rose of Pinot Noir. We once again made an ice wine style Viognier dessert wine.

Our Bordeaux varietals which we source from contracted vineyards in Paso Robles ripened without issue. The majority of the Cabernet came in last week and is still fermenting. The Merlot which ripened earlier is in barrel and tasting fine.

All in all it was a very good harvest. The moderate weather created ideal ripening conditions that allowed the big crop to come in slowly and in prime shape. It also meant it was long. Most harvests wrap up after six weeks or so, but this one went on and on. We’re in the 9th week at this point and there’s still the few odds and ends to bring into the winery. Much cellar and barrel work remains to put this big baby to bed, and the crew will be relieved when Thanksgiving arrives and things slow back down to normal.

- Larry Brooks, Winemaker