At Tablas Creek, we believe that organic farming allows the grapes to show more varietal character, have more intense flavors and taste more like where they are grown. Since our beginning in 1989, we have followed the model set by Château de Beaucastel, which has been an organically farmed vineyard since the 1960s. Like Beaucastel, we are confident that in addition to producing the highest quality fruit, avoiding chemical additives makes for a healthier vineyard. We received our organic certification in January, 2003.
To reap a successful harvest, all farmers must ensure that their crops are not overrun with weeds, are not eaten by bugs or other pests, and receive sufficient nutrients. Modern (often termed “conventional”) viticulture relies on commercial herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers for those purposes. Organic grape growers, on the other hand, eschew chemical solutions, and must be more creative. They rely on a variety of solutions, including cover crops, mulch, beneficial insects and composting. At Tablas Creek, we use all of these methods.
Cover cropping is one of the mainstays of our organic viticulture program, and serves several purposes throughout the year. Each fall after harvest, a selection of crops (including peas, oats, clover and vetch) are planted between the rows of vines. During the winter rains, the cover crop minimizes soil erosion. In the spring, we plow the cover crop under, and it acts as a natural fertilizer, returning valuable nitrogen to the soil. These cover crops provide a habitat for beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, which in turn eat the insects that could potentially damage the grapevines.
A tractor attachment called the Tournesol (after the sunflower-like arrangement of its cultivating heads) is our primary method of in-row weeding. A circular duo of blades is dragged behind the tractor, rotating a few inches below the ground to uproot weeds in the vine rows. A rubber sensor arm in front of the cultivator alerts a computer to the presence of an obstruction, and rotates the cultivator head around the vine, post or wire. Thus, the weeds can be uprooted without damaging the grapevine. Other methods of weed control we’ve used include hand hoeing in between the rows and mulching (using shredded rootstocks and other organic materials) around the vines.
Compost is another crucial component of our organic program. We compost vine cuttings, leaves, and by-products of the winemaking process, such as stems, grape skins and seeds. Most of the compost is used for spreading in the vine rows, usually in October. We have enough compost for a few acres of vineyard, and it is used in the areas that need an intensive dose of nitrogen. The compost pile is also used to brew compost tea. Composted material is placed in a sack made of cheesecloth, much like a tea bag, and warmed well water is bubbled through it for two to four hours. The resulting liquid is a highly enriched organic brew that can be sprayed directly on the leaves and bunches to combat mildew or can be run through our irrigation drip lines to directly fertilize the roots.
Our organic pest control is done primarily by encouraging a sustainable population of a diverse array of insects, including lacewings, ladybugs, predatory wasps, thrips and insectivorous mites. Cover crops are a large part of this effort, but we also plant sections of the vineyard with insect-friendly, flower-rich cover crops, which thrive throughout the year. Because we don’t spray any pesticides or herbicides, each year the beneficial insect population builds and becomes more effective. We can also intervene as necessary by releasing beneficial insects in response to specific threats. Leafhoppers are our most common threat, sucking liquid from the vines and sapping vine strength, and we control their population by introducing their natural predator, lacewings. When necessary in the summer, we place tabs containing roughly 10,000 lacewing eggs every 100 meters along affected vine rows. They hatch and augment the existing population, bringing the leafhoppers under control. For more severe outbreaks, we have at our disposal organic soaps and oils which we can spray on vines.
Since 2010 we have been including Biodynamic practices into our vineyard work. Biodynamics starts with organic prohibitions on use of chemicals, and then adds a variety of holistic practices to build healthy soils and crops through biodiversity and sensitivity to a vine's natural cycles.
Key to these practices is our mixed herd of sheep, alpacas and donkeys (right) which we deploy into the vineyard each winter to eat down the cover crop, fertilize with their manure, and mix the soil with their hooves. The addition of these animals allows us to reduce the number of tractor passes we need each year, and builds a vibrant, diverse soil ecology impossible without animal inputs. And while the animals are the most visible evidence of our quest for biodiversity, equally important are the fruit trees and herbs that we interplant in the vineyard, and the sections of native vegetation that we leave. Each attracts its own complement of insect, bird and animal life. For more on our Biodynamic practices, visit the Tablas Creek blog.
Although all the grapes that go into our estate wines are organically grown, we do not make organic wines. The distinction is one that is confusing to many people. At issue is the use of sulfites in wine. Sulfites have been used for centuries to discourage the formation of vinegar and inhibit oxidation. A certain level of sulfites occurs naturally in grapes, and additional sulfites are traditionally added in winemaking. The USDA, through its National Organic Program, has defined organic wines to be wines made with organically grown grapes, and without any added sulfites. Tablas Creek's estate wines are made exclusively from the organic grapes we grow ourselves, and just enough sulfites to ensure that the wines are stable and can age gracefully.
Since the 2010 vintage, we have been proud to offer the Patelin de Tablas, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and (new in 2012) the Patelin de Tablas Rosé. These wines includes some fruit from our own vineyard, but are principally sourced from other Paso Robles Rhone vineyards that are planted with our cuttings. Some of these are farmed organically, and we're working with the vineyards with whom we've signed long-term contracts to convert more to organic viticulture. In choosing the vineyards with which we work, we balance clonal selection, vineyard site and farming practices, and bring you the best $20 bottles of wine possible. While it's unlikely the Patelin wines will ever be 100% made from organic grapes, we are committed to sourcing as high a percentage from organically farmed vineyards as possible.
Tablas Creek will join the 50 members of the Paso Robles Chapter of the Rhone Rangers for the 2016 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience. This fun-filled and information-rich day will include a "Rhone Essentials" seminar moderated by Esther Mobley, Wine, Beer & Spirits Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, a Vintners' Lunch, and the Grand Tasting and Silent Auction. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
In Robert Parker's Wine Advocate (Issue 220) 15 Tablas wines topped 90 points, including 2014 Esprit de Tablas (93-96), 2013 Panoplie (94-96), and 2014 Panoplie (95-97). Read the review » More press »
February 5, 2016
By: Suphada Rom
Prior to working at Tablas Creek, I spent three years working at a small French bistro that was adjacent to a chocolate shop, which was also conveniently co-owned by the owners of the restaurant (pommes frites…check! chocolates…check!). I was in heaven learning not only about our menu, but about the chocolates we produced. As I reflect on my time there, I realized wine and chocolate have really similar foundations. Read More »