SPRING UPDATE: Water Issues Have Dried Up

“Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel have been out for a week or so, and Cab is starting to open up and show some leaves.”

Water Issues Have Dried Up

Bud break occurring throughout California wine regions

Maddalena Vineyard Brands California bud break 2012
04.20.2012, Wines & Vines, by Paul Franson

San Rafael, Calif.—It’s the time of year when grapevines start budding, so Wines & Vines took a quick survey of growers from Temecula to Mendocino to gauge the timing. We also asked about water, pests and diseases. Here is what they had to say about viticulture in California, from north to south.

Mendocino and Lake counties Zac Robinson at Husch Vineyards in the Anderson Valley reports that the season is off to an easy start with few worries. Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot are all showing two or three leaves with an average bud break of April 10. “So far, frost problems have been minor. We have turned on sprinklers twice.”

He said that a month back, his ponds were nearly empty. “We were using the word ‘drought’ in polite conversation. But 12 inches of rain have fallen in the past 30 days, and the ponds are now full. It takes water off the list of worries.”

He added that after two growing seasons of record cold, they are wondering if 2012 might be a return to something more normal.

Also in Anderson Valley, Bill Charles, owner/grower at Charles Vineyard, said, “We are about 1.5 inches out right now on the Pinot vines in Boonville. We’ve had six frost nights so far where we’ve had to use overhead sprinklers to protect the vines. Disease pressure is basically as nonexistent as it can be, with none predicted in the near future. Thanks to the late rains, our rain catchment pond is full, and we should have plenty of water for the growing season. We’re predicting a light crop due to last year’s cool weather.”

In inland Mendocino County, University of California Cooperative Extension winegrowing advisor Glenn McGourty reports that bud break is just happening, saying, “Chardonnay is barely green.” He also reports that water is in good shape with more than 25 inches of rain, full reservoirs and the frost season mostly over.

The county has been released from the European grapevine moth quarantine, but McGourty reports that they’re still setting traps. Most growers near spots where the bugs have been found plan to treat for them just in case.

In the Lake County High Valley and Red Hills region, Clay Shannon said that bud break is just now starting, making it about three days later than the past few years and a week to 10 days later than normal.

Until three weeks ago, some of Shannon’s vineyards in High Valley had only received 6 inches of rain since harvest. “That has changed drastically. High Valley has now had about 16 inches of rain this year and Red Hills about 20, which is still about half the normal. So we are very concerned about having enough water this year. Our wells are just now starting to recover. These late spring rains will help for sure.”

Shannon says it’s too early to tell about potential yields, but the winter bud analysis showed acceptable fruitfulness with 1.4 to 1.6 clusters per bud on Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah showed 1.25 to 1.4. “So based on bud analysis, we think we have lower crop potential in Zin and PS and an average crop potential with Cab and Sauv Blanc.”

If water supplies are questionable, however, he expects a lower crop mainly due to smaller berries via late-season water stress. “Potentially this would have a positive effect on wine color and tannins.”

Sonoma County
Shifting to Sonoma County, winemaker Tim Bell at Dry Creek Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley said that all of its varieties show some degree of growth. “Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel have been out for a week or so, and Cab is starting to open up and show some leaves.”

Timing of bud break is about average to slightly later than average. “We probably would have seen growth earlier as the vines were starting to push when the rains came, and that put the brakes on growth for awhile.”

At this stage he predicts an average to slightly below average crop.

He said that his guys in the vineyards do not report recent rains having any significant impact on disease pressure. Sulfur sprays for mildew will start as soon as the shoots are longer. One impact of the late rains is that an additional pass may be needed for mowing vineyard cover crops and more weed management.

Bell said Dry Creek Valley is still below average rainfall amounts, but recent rains have made the situation much better. “There was a lot of talk early in the year about the need to start irrigating early because the winter had been so dry. However, ground water has now been replenished, and we should be able to put off the start of irrigation.”

In cool Green Valley in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, Marimar Torres reported that bud break has arrived. “The rains finally came.…It has been raining almost non-stop since mid-March (until this week). We’ve had almost 50 inches of rain this season, but two-thirds of that in the past four weeks. OK, now the rain can stop!”

In her Doña Margarita Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, the buds are just starting to open. “In the vineyards it’s a beautiful time, when the vines come to life after the long winter rest. The tiny leaves are so cute, all even and bright green! But it is also the time when they are most susceptible to deer, one of our natural enemies here. Last year someone left the vineyard gate open up at the Doña Margarita Vineyard, and four deer came in; in a couple of days they devoured more than an acre, which meant a loss of over $20,000 for us!”

In Alexander Valley, Jordan Vineyard & Winery’s assistant winemaker Ronald Du Preez reported that Petit Verdot bud break began April 1, followed b y Chardonnay. “Sauvignon Blanc is an inch or two.” Cabernet, however, is just starting. “January was very cold, and that inhibited bud break.”

He said that he’s seeking mostly two clusters per shoot, with few at three.

They’ve seen two or three frosts since bud break, but haven’t had to turn on the wind machines in their upper vineyards. He noted that the valley floor vineyards the winery recently sold have had to use wind machines and sprinklers.

Late rain has forced them to mow weeds a second time.

Jumping over to Sonoma Valley, Christopher W. Silva, president and CEO of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, is very optimistic about harvest 2012. “Although rainfall for the season is still below normal, the crops look much better following some good rains since mid-March.”

He said that bud break for Chardonnay occurred March 19 in the Sonoma Valley Estate Vineyard. Since then, they’ve had more than seven nights of spring frost, those early mornings when vineyard temperatures fall below 32°F and risk crop size by freezing the delicate bud shoots. “Our vineyard team was up on those nights with our wind machines to raise vineyard temperatures, and with overhead sprinklers to form ‘ice cocoons’ around the tiny shoots and maintain them just above 32°, free from major damage.”

Silva said the recent rains have led to slightly humid, warmer mornings, which have minimized spring frost by keeping most early mornings above 32° in our vineyards.

He said it looks like a 2012 crop that is somewhere between light and normal. “But we all know that a lot can happen between now and harvest. I tell my kids that anyone who wants ‘predictable’ shouldn’t be in this business.”

At nearby Lasseter Vineyards, winemaker Julia Iantosca said that late varieties and cooler climate vines haven’t budded yet, but she expects it by weekend.

She added that the year started dry, then March brought heavy rains. “Bud break is a week later than last year,” she said.

Water is still a bit behind last year, but rains came so late that fields are saturated. Still, “If someone relies on reservoirs, this could be a difficult year, though many look pretty full.”

She and her husband Bob also grow grapes at their home in Bennett Valley, and there they’ve seen little growth. “We’ve seen puddles in swales the ground is so wet.”

Napa Valley
In Napa Valley, Jon Ruel, director of viticulture and winemaking and COO at Trefethen Family Vineyards in the Oak Knoll District saw some bud swell in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as early as March 1, but progress since then has been slow. “Those varieties are showing 1- to 3-inch shoots right now, as is the Merlot. The Riesling is certainly pushing too, but the Cabernet Sauvignon is still just swelling. The warm weather expected over the next 10 days should really kick the season into high gear.”

He noted that February was quite dry. Only 12.5 inches had fallen during the rainy season until March brought another 12 inches. That, plus a couple of inches last week, has apparently saturated the soil profile. “We still have full cover crops across the ranch that provide many springtime benefits. For example, we can drive the tractors after rains and we can reel in vine vigor by allowing the grasses to compete with the vines for soil water. Flowers attract native insects including wasps that will parasitize mealybugs and other pests. Our reservoirs are full, thanks to captured vineyard drainage and recycled winery water, so we are ready to run more frost protection if needed, or we will save it for irrigation later this summer.”

Lodi Over the Vaca Range in Lodi, bud break was fairly average (March 15), reported Stuart Spencer at the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Commission. “The cool weather has got things off to a slow start, but with this week’s warmer weather vines should start growing well. It’s really too early to start predicting crop size, but I’m not aware of anyone that is expecting a large crop.” He added, “This past month’s rain has helped the water situation, but we are still a long way away from what we need. Many growers actually did some winter irrigations to make sure water was available to the vines when they started to grow. “Fortunately, the quarantine for European grapevine moth was removed, but there are additional invasive pests posing problems for agriculture in the region. It’s a situation that has everyone watchful. The real story has been the dramatic shift in demand for Lodi grapes and bulk wine, and the region is positioned well to respond to the emerging shortage of California grapes. We are seeing many coastal wineries looking to Lodi as a way to control grape costs while still maintaining quality goals.” Santa Cruz In the Santa Cruz Mountains, bud break has been happening in various vineyards over the past month, depending on the varietal and vineyard location/elevation. Mary Lindsay, president of the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains, stated, “Given our varied region—from coastal to high-elevation vineyards and inland, and wide range of varietals—we don’t have a consistent picture. For the most part, though, it has started in earnest over the past two weeks or so. I’ve seen reports along the coastal areas of bud break starting mid to end of March and some vineyards more inland (Saratoga foothills) and at the higher elevations where it is just happening now.” She added that a few hundred feet in elevation can make the difference of a couple of weeks. Burrell School Vineyards, at 1,600-foot elevation along Summit Road, reported bud break in Pinot and Chardonnay at the end of March. Muns Vineyard, just up the hill at 2,600-foot elevation, is just now barely starting bud break in the Pinot. For many vineyards, bud break this year is a week or two later than usual, Lindsay said. Like last year, this has been a late, wet Spring (which has also slowed shoot development). Last week some of the higher elevation vineyards experienced hail, but there were no reports of damage. “This shouldn’t be extrapolated to the rest of the region, but at the higher elevations we can really see the impact of the cooler spring temps keeping the vines dormant. Muns Vineyard had snowfall mid-March this year (snow there is not unusual, but typically comes earlier; and April frost is not unusual, either.) In this vineyard, the past three years have seen later bud break from what used to be about March 10 to last year late March to this year it’s mid-April and barely starting,” she said. Lindsay continued, “Earlier in the year we were very concerned about the lack of winter rain, and some vineyards started to irrigate to make sure the vines had moisture to meet their spring growth demands—then the deluge came. At least along the coastal side vineyards should have had about normal rainfall (maybe a little less), with the rains from March and April. At the higher elevations we saw in excess of 35 inches or so. For the most part these have been effective rains, steady and gentle, that have soaked into the soil and not run off and caused erosion. However, on the inland (Silicon Valley) side of the region, there has been significantly less rainfall this year (less than on the coastal side and less than normal.)” Ed Muns at Muns Vineyard says, “At this point, our vineyards are in excellent shape to kick off the growing season. The critical factor now will be whether the rain stops in May and doesn’t come back until fall. Otherwise, we risk disruption to bloom and set in June. If the summer is relatively cool like the past two years, we will be harvesting in close proximity to the fall rains. Disease pressure will depend on how much rain we get from now on and whether it starts up again before the grapes are in the winery. “With last year’s low crop load (many vineyards at half normal yield), we might expect a bumper crop this year as the plants have energy to produce more fruitful buds. However, the cool 2011 spring restrained bud differentiation such that we are seeing only a normal flower yield in the 2012 bud analysis. Monterey County In Monterey County, grower Jason Smith at Paraiso Vineyards reported that bud break occurred as normal with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in late February and early March. “Our later varieties Cab and Merlot in Hames Valley are just breaking bud now.” The late rains have been nice. “What growth we have had has been even. It’s very hard to say what yields will be. Monterey County is very dependent on bloom time weather…at the very least we would hope to have a normal crop but way too early to really know.” He added that disease pressure is always high. “We actually did some early dormant sprays in very difficult spots from 2011. We are on our regular regimen of disease control and could not be any worse than last year’s pressure.” Water is not an issue in Monterey County. Although the annual rainfall is below normal, there is plenty of underground water. “The storms in late March and early April helped to leach the soils, and we are ready and eager for a nice 2012, as 2011 was one of our most difficult on record.” Santa Barbara County In Santa Barbara County, Andrew Levi, winemaker at Grassini Family Vineyards in Happy Canyon, Santa Ynez, said “Things are under way in the vineyards here at Grassini Family Vineyards. Bud break occurred the first week of April, and the vines now have anywhere from 2 to 8 inches of growth on them depending on the variety and block location in the vineyard.” He added that now that he is seeing warmer nights, the potential for frost has largely passed: “With our frost-detection system and ability to take action, we have come through that danger completely unscathed.” In the second week of April, a series of late-season storms brought good rains and water accumulation to the vineyard. “This is great because up to that point we had experienced a very dry winter here in Santa Barbara County. Early on, we want to see the conditions for good growth of shoots in the vineyard. It’s important to get a strong start out of the gates and the notion of stressing the vines comes into play a bit down the road, not here at the early outset. Warm, dry and sunny weather immediately followed drying the green growth on the vines and keeping the humidity low. This has kept mold pressure under control and we’ve experienced no problems with mildew.” He continued, “While it’s far too early to estimate what kind of yields we will have this year, we do expect to see a slightly larger crop this year because tonnages were light last year. The vines have a way of adjusting themselves from year to year to account for crop load variations and we believe a return to the norm this year. So far, it’s been an auspicious start to the growing season and we have high hopes that good conditions will continue to give us another excellent harvest this year.” Temecula And finally, Damian Doffo of Doffo Wines in Temecula said that bud break was a little early this year with some buds opening as early as beginning of March, and some shoots now having as much as 5 to 6 inches of growth. “We are expecting healthy yields if the weather becomes somewhat normal. Last year we got late rains (June /July) during flower set, which knocked the flowers off several Cab vineyards in the area, lowering yields dramatically; ours was almost 30% less. However, our yields don’t always correlate to many of the vineyards in the area, because we intentionally limit our yield to produce higher quality grapes; if we have 1.5-1.75 tons an acre we’re happy. “In regards to disease pressure, I haven’t caught wind of any alarming situations, and we’re always proactive with our spraying program against powdery mildew and PD.”


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