California Vineyards Ahead of Schedule

Coastal and inland areas agree: growing season is off to a quick start

by Jane Firstenfeld
santa cruz bud break
Buds push March 14 at Silver Mountain, a 2,100-foot elevation site in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo: M. Lindsay
San Rafael, Calif.—This week Wines & Vines continues its look at wine grape development, asking grapegrowers about spring frost and the state of the growing season in California.

Bud break started around March 5 for white varieties in the Clarksburg region, according to Dan Garcia, president of the CWGVA. “It’s probably about 10 days earlier than the previous year. For the red varieties in my own vineyard, I was just beginning to see bud break on March 10.”

Although Garcia noted it’s too early to speculate on the 2014 crop, “All indications would point to a normal to below normal crop,” after record-breaking harvests in 2012 and 2013. “Most everyone believes the vines can’t produce another heavy crop, but who knows? Look what happened again last year after the record crop the previous harvest of 2012,” and another heavy crop in 2013. “We have all witnessed crazier things,” he noted. 

“It looks like Lodi bud break is trending about a week ahead of our long-term average of March 15 for Chardonnay,” Stuart Spencer, program manager at the Lodi Winegrape Commission, told Wines & Vines.

“Our later varieties such as Old Vine Zin and Cabernet Sauvignon are just starting to come out over the past several days, also about a week ahead of normal. Most growers are expecting a lighter crop this year, but we still have a long way to go.

“Frost is always a concern through the months of March and April, but very few (area vineyards) have sprinklers in place. Frost protection normally consists of wind machines, mowing cover crops, irrigation and prayer.”

Livermore Valley
Mourvèdre is still asleep, reported Steve Koch, vineyard manager at Fenestra Winery. “Bud break in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir occurred about three weeks ago. Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, some Zin and the like are currently in final stages of bud break,” about two weeks earlier than the norm.

“Crop loads will probably be smaller than normal this year, due to lack of rainfall and available irrigation water.”

Bud break from a newly contracted Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard happened the week of March 12, said Steve Burman, co-owner/winemaker at 3 Steves Winery.

“Compared to other vineyards in which we have ownership in Livermore Valley, it’s a bit earlier than our records show historically. We envision a smaller crop than normal this year.”

Brent Amos, winemaker for Las Positas Vineyards, observed bud break in Nebbiolo and Chardonnay on Feb. 27, Petite Sirah on March 2, Petit Verdot and Barbera on March 14, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Malbec and Syrah on March 19.

“This is about two to three weeks early. It will be a smaller crop than normal.” Like other Livermore growers, he said, “We do not anticipate any frost damage.”

“The Chardonnay across the street started budding about two weeks ago. We just pruned our Merlot and are still looking for bud break. It does seem earlier than normal,” said Mark Triska, owner, Triska Crane Ridge Vineyards. “We expect the crop to be smaller this year given expected water allocations.”

Santa Cruz Mountains
At Thomas Fogarty Winery in the northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains, “We saw bud break in Chardonnay in early March, a week earlier than normal—if there is a normal anymore,” said Nathan W. Kandler.

“Pinot Noir was pushing the second week of March, and Cabernet Sauvignon around March 20—quite early. Another harvest beginning in August seems almost a given. The vines have grown relatively quickly, with the late rain and historically warm March.

“We are seeing quite a bit of bud fertility, likely from the ideal conditions last year. Many secondary and tertiary buds are pushing with the primary, especially on Pinot Noir. We have had cold nights, but frost is generally not an issue at our elevations (1,700-plus feet). We are mowing and spading our cover crops now to lock in the moisture they provide,” Kandler said, citing soil-moisture management as a key issue in this second drought year.

Mary Lindsay, co-owner of 13-acre Muns Vineyard in Los Gatos, Calif., and president of the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains, provided an overview for the AVA. “Bud break started in the Santa Cruz Mountains mid-February, about a month earlier than usual. It was widespread, especially in Pinot Noir but some other varieties as well by the end of the month—from Corralitos up to the summit and north into Palo Alto and Woodside. By now it is in full swing throughout the region, and the 2014 vintage is well on its way.

“Growers generally in the Santa Cruz Mountains are expecting a smaller crop load this year due to the drought and natural cycles in the vineyard. The past two years have been such banner years that it's hard to expect the vines to produce like that again this year,” Lindsay said.

Monterey County
With input from Jason Smith at Paraiso Vineyards, Amanda West Reade, communications director of the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association, reported that bud break throughout the county is about seven to 14 days earlier than normal.

“Most would predict potential for (a normal crop), based on a good spring last year, she said. “However, we won’t know for certain until after bloom.”

Although they’re not anticipating frost damage, West Reade said, “It’s Mother Nature: There’s always a possibility. Where we have frost-protection systems in place (irrigation and fans), we are prepared. Where we aren’t, we pray,” she said, echoing the sentiment of growers across the state.

Paso Robles
John Crossland at Vineyard Professional Services in Templeton, said that earlier varieties and locations in the Paso Robles AVA saw signs of bud break as early as March 1. “We are now seeing bud break throughout the region, about two to three weeks earlier than most years.”

Regarding crop size, Crossland said, “If talking to winery buyers, the crop will be short. If talking to our bankers, it will be at least normal. If talking to the press it will be of great quality. In seriousness, we just won’t know until bloom, shatter and set,” Templeton observed.  “The prolonged drought is expected potentially to affect the size of our crop in a reducing way.”

“There is the potential of frost until at least May 15, historically. Growers in the coolest spring areas delay pruning, which delays bud break. Some growers have overhead sprinklers to mitigate frost, and others employ wind machines,” Templeton said.

“It is common for early mildew preventive sprays to include copper compounds that kill frost, nucleating bacteria resulting in freezing occurring a few degrees colder, perhaps saving the tender grape tissue from frost damage,” he explained.

Santa Barbara County
santa maria bud break
Tyler Thomas documents Chardonnay bud break in the Dierberg Vineyard in Santa Maria, Calif.
From 3,500-case Ampelos Cellars in Lompoc, Peter Work reported: “Based on the shoot and cluster counts we have done, it looks like the crop will be lower than 2012 and ’13. Most shoots have two clusters, but we see less double shoots on the positions, which gives us fewer choices when we shoot-thin. That will lead to an average of fewer clusters per vine.

“The weather forecast does not indicate night temperatures below 41° F for the next 10 days, but in the beginning of the decade we had significant frost early/mid-April, so we are still watching the forecasts. We have sprinkler irrigation ready to kick in. Since all our vineyards are on slopes, we have not had frost issues in the past. We are also ready with Biodynamic sprays that have proven to work well in the past,” Work said.

Tyler Thomas, director of winemaking at Dierberg/Star Lane Vineyards in Santa Ynez, reported the earliest bud break was on Pinot Noir vines in late February; now, most Cabernet Sauvignon is out as well, earlier than “normal” by 16 to 20 days.

Unlike many of his California colleagues, he said, “Based on the number of clusters per shoot, I would suggest a normal or large crop once again,” while admitting that such an early prediction is “dubious. We are going to have an extended frost season, which could impact yields and fruit set and alter yields dramatically.”

“The early season certainly leads to a longer frost season and therefore the potential for it to impact yields. We rented a few frost machines in Santa Maria just to be safe,” he said.

“This is the earliest season I have experienced in my 15 years of managing vineyards,” said Jim McGarry of Atlas Vineyard Management. Although it’s hard to know what the crop will be like, “I would say ‘normal’ at this point. In Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, we are way past bud break. We have as much as 15 inches of growth in some areas. Bud break in some areas was as early as early February.”

Spraying with fungicides and copper seems to be an increasingly popular frost-protection technique. If frost is imminent, “Copper can give 1°-2° F of protection with cold temps,” he said, while advising growers also to keep cover crops mowed or cultivated. “Use fans or overhead sprinklers when possible.”

Karen Steinwachs at Vintegrated Solutions and Buttonwood Farm Vineyard in Santa Ynez said that she’s on pins and needles about frost, constantly scanning weather reports. “We don’t have overhead sprinklers, so we can only do what we can: Mowing cover crop low to the ground in frost prone areas, tuning up our anti-frost fan.

“After two bountiful years of crops combined with the drought, we expect a small to normal crop. I expect a lot of thinning, either by nature or by us.”

Vintage 2014 will be special for Solminer Wine Co. in Los Olivos, where the first CCOF-certified crop from their 3-acre vineyard purchased in 2012 is growing Syrah, Grüner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch. Bud break started March 12, two weeks earlier than last year. David deLaski expects a larger crop than last year.

“We always anticipate frost sometime in April,” he said. We have overhead sprinklers and, he said, “If the temperature hits 34° F, we will be up all night switching them from block to block: We don’t have enough water pressure to run them all at the same time. If our temperatures get below 28° F, we are really in trouble.”

san diego county bud break
Some San Diego County growers are planning to start irrigating early due to ongoing drought conditions.
San Diego
From the extreme South State, Linda McWilliams, president of the San Diego County Vintners Association and owner/winemaker of San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa, gathered reports from around the county, showing bud break uniformly two to three weeks earlier than usual, varying by micro-climate within the past two to four weeks.

A “normal” crop, in contrast to the past two blockbusters, is dependent on water supplies. “Some vineyards are on well water but there is concern is that the aquifer water level is down. Due to the drought, many are planning to start watering earlier and for longer periods of time—as long as we can get water. We do not expect to have any frost.”

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