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Where Has All the Mustard Gone?

February 2014
by Jim Gordon
This is the 10th annual Barrel Issue of Wines & Vines, but the first thing on my mind as I write this column Jan. 20 is California’s drought. Officials declared the past year the driest in the state’s recorded history, and here we sit with virtually no rain in months, during the winter season when we normally see about two-thirds of our annual rainfall.

Wild mustard should be blooming in the vineyards, but the only places I have seen it are a few spots around drainage ditches. Mustard and other cover crops would normally be about a foot high between the rows, and the hills would be alive with green wild grasses.

Brown is all we have to look at, however, unless you count the few thin lines of oats and other cover crops that sprouted after light fall rains and then stopped growing. I have never seen it this dry in January since I first moved to Napa Valley in 1979.

How long can it last?
The blue skies and warm daytime temperatures reaching the 70°s return day after day. Each time I look at the National Weather Service’s seven-day forecast it is the same thing: Nighttime lows around 30° F, sunny and clear all day.

The weather is fantastic for outdoor activities, but it’s also eerie. How long can this last? I hope that by writing this in January, it might prompt the rain to make a liar out of me by pouring down before you read this issue in early February.

Concerned grapegrowers will find one excellent water-related article in this issue and should expect more in March, whether or not the rains come. See page 60 in the Practical Winery & Vineyard section for a technical article about “surface-renewal measurements of actual evapotranspiration.”

This piece by Tom Shapland describes a new, less-expensive method of measuring actual water loss from vines, cover vegetation and the soil developed at the University of California, Davis, and commercialized by Tule Technologies.

Seeing the forest and the trees
Journalists who cover wine are used to tromping around in vineyards, but they don’t often explore forests. That’s what staff writer Andrew Adams got to do as part of his research for the barrel report. Adams went to Missouri last fall to see the indigenous hardwood forests that provide white oak for wine barrels. He dodged falling trees in the forest, screaming saws in the mills and flying sparks in the cooperages.

He wrote one good report on the economic and qualitative factors involved in producing fine wine barrels from American oak and a second one about choices that winemakers face when buying oak barrels of any type. Barrel buyers are increasingly focused on consistency as their most desired trait in barrels, he concluded.

Up to speed on red blotch
Beyond drought, the most talked-about issue among viticulturists right now may be red blotch disease in grapevines. Senior correspondent Paul Franson set out to report a story on the supply and demand for nursery stock due to a resurgence in planting, but he soon discovered that the real story was red blotch.

His article describes how the new demand for vines free of the grapevine red blotch-associated virus has created at least a temporary hiccup in the supply of some varieties and scion-rootstock combinations. A shortage of certified clean plants for grafting has prompted some growers to change their game plans. They may plant rootstocks instead of grafted vines, then hope for more certified scion wood to field-graft later. They may choose their own field selections to use for propagation, which makes the scientific and extension community worried.

Franson’s report is highly recommended reading to bring yourself up to speed on the disease, its effects and methods of spreading.

Hybrids to the rescue
While Western grapegrowers worried about water, Eastern and Midwestern vineyard owners anxiously checked their vines after a severe advective freeze hit their regions. Those with Vitis vinifera acreage were rightfully concerned about loss of buds and wood in the below-zero temperatures. Those with native labrusca vines were not concerned, however, nor were most of those with hybrid vines. 

Authors G. Stanley Howell and Paolo Sabbatini explain why hybrids are practical for so many growers around the Great Lakes and central states in the second half of their exhaustive two-part series. They put in perspective the contributions of the French-American crosses that have made wine-grape growing feasible in mid-America.

Here’s hoping that normal rains and moderate temperatures return to North American vineyards soon.

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