For Thompson Vineyard, 2015 has been an interesting growing season so far. As most people know, we in California are part way through our fourth year of a severe drought, and early-year rainfall was relatively scarce. We also never experienced the sustained cold snaps that are common in late winter and the beginning of spring, and with the hospitable weather our vines got started many weeks before historical averages. This told us we should be expecting a very early harvest, if the usual weather patterns occur and grapes ripen at their normal pace. That, of course, is a big if…
Our growing season mid-way through August at Thompson has been long and mild. June and July saw little (if any) significant heat spikes, and while there have been a few notably hot days in August, they seem to immediately give way to milder temperatures as the prevailing norm. Meteorologists are predicting the strongest El Nino in decades for the 2015/16 winter, which seems to be affecting summer weather in advance. The air has been cool and foggy in the morning and occasionally humid in the afternoons so we’ve had to watch the grapes carefully for moisture issues, with mildews and botrytis always lurking in the shadows.
After the Thompson vines curiously decided to increase output over the last three years of drought (each year producing a successively larger crop despite the torture of water-deprivation), it seems they’ve adopted a different stress-management strategy in 2015 and gone back to their notoriously low yields, with healthy clusters of small highly-concentrated berries.
Controlling What We Can
We’ve been busy carefully tuning our farming approach this year to optimize for our goals of absolute quality as well. Critical nitrogen-rich winter legume cover crops were planted and tilled under. Rows have been disked numerous times to keep soil supple and breathing, allowing what little rain is received to feed our deep-rooted vines naturally. Weeds have been ushered out by hand to avoid any possibility of contamination. New panel netting protects clusters while allowing an unobstructed vine canopy to provide natural leaf shade. Each varietal, sub-block, and nano-climate has been pruned, positioned, leafed, hedged, winged, and thinned for optimal air flow and exposure. Irrigation pumps, computers, and emitters were all replaced and upgraded to allow us to control supplemental watering with surgical precision.
As a result, vineyard walks with our winemakers have been rewarding. Thompson veterans have universally remarked on the vineyard’s visibly positive changes, with newcomers objectively noting how incredible the vines look and how excited they are with their fruit allocation.
So while we may expect to harvest earlier than usual, our vines also started hanging fruit very early and hang-time in absolute days is broad. All of this adds up to what appears to be an early yet relatively long 2015 growing season, with ideal conditions for extremely high quality fruit that should make some amazing wine.
What’s Old is New
When the Thompson family originally planted the vineyard in 1990, they incorporated a small block of Wente clone Chardonnay on its own rootstock. As the vineyard became far more renowned for its Syrah, Grenache, and other Rhone varietals, this old Chardonnay block just kept cruising year after year, usually going into a much larger cuvee produced by Santa Barbara Winery. For years, it seems there has been a debate about whether to swap the Chardonnay out for something more consistent with the vineyard.
This year, however, our Chardonnay rows were discovered by a new patron who is committed to taking their resulting wine to a new level.
Sandhi is a boutique winery focused on special Santa Barbara County vineyards, primarily in Sta. Rita Hills and other select areas. It was founded in 2010 by Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina Restaurants, Charles Banks, the former owner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle, and respected winemaker, Sashi Moorman.
Sashi knows Thompson Vineyard well, having worked under Adam Tolmach at The Ojai Vineyard when Adam first began making his amazing Thompson Syrahs of the mid to late 90’s. For his Sandhi wines, we understand Sashi’s mission is to produce wines with elegance, minerality, and grace, and that he has been on the hunt for old-vine, own-rooted Chardonnay which has become extremely rare over the years. Fortunately for all of us, we just happen to have some.
Sashi met us at the vineyard last week to check on his newly adopted Chardonnay block. As we walked the rows and tasted grapes, he uttered the phrase that we’ve all been waiting to hear: “These taste great – they’re ready.”
1 Family, 3 Generations, 21 Vintages
The Thompson crew consists of one large three-generation family who helped plant the vineyard in 1990 and has been living on the ranch ever since. This is their 21st consecutive vintage. Their patriarch and matriarch, Tino and Elva Cervantes, have seven children and 23 grandchildren between them. Today nearly every family member of working age is dedicated to the Thompson Vineyard in some way.
An elite team of 13 Cervantes harvest commandos was assembled at 1AM on Monday, August 17th, with the goal of having the first load en route by 6AM. The Chardonnay block isn’t huge, but it is notoriously difficult to pick because its rows don’t span the width of the vineyard and require meticulous forward and reverse tractor work. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to get through it all in five hours, but the Cervantes family moved through the rows with efficiency, precision, and (most importantly) good humor. In the end we were able to separate just over 4.16 tons of fruit from vine (1.27 tons per acre) with time to spare for war stories, coffee, and delicious homemade breakfast tamales…compliments of our own Mrs. Cervantes.
3 acres down, 39 to go.