Buds break, growers fret
2013 grapegrowing season off to a dry, fast start
VINEYARD MANAGER PETE HOFFMAN checks on the early bud break at a Benziger Family Winery vineyard on Sonoma Mountain.
Over the last week, skittish grape growers have expressed the same mix of joy and trepidation you might expect from any parents with an early arrival. The first signs of bud break last week heralded an early start to the 2013 grapegrowing season in Sonoma Valley. In some places in Carneros, the buds on early ripening varieties such as chardonnay swelled and leafy green shoots began unfurling as much as even a week before that.
“It’s definitely earlier than last year. Things are awake and moving at a very rapid pace,” said Phil Coturri, who, with his company Enterprise Vineyards, tends vineyards up and down the Valley. “You’re always concerned,” said Coturri.
The combination of a very dry winter and an exceptionally warm two-week stretch has coaxed the buds out quite early across the county. “Very rarely have we experienced weather that’s been this dry,” said winemaker Mike Benziger.
According to rainfall totals from the Gen. Vallejo Home in Sonoma, December was fairly normal at 4.74 inches, but in January 0.91 inches fell, and just 0.04 inches was recorded in February, and 0.26 thus far in March, for a total of 1.26 inches of rainfall so far this this year.
With the very dry conditions, the soil has heated up even more quickly than normal. “That tends to push bud break forward,” said Benziger.
The buds have been straining in the vineyards since the last two weeks of February.
Coturri, who has been farming vineyards for 40 years, said he remembers his mentor Joe Miami telling him tall tales about bud break occurring on Feb. 22, years ago. “I never believed him,” said Coturri, “But I thought it was going to happen this year.”
He’s seen bud break in hillside sangiovese, sauvignon blanc and grenache so far, and many others have reported white varieties being well ahead of the curve. Deepak Gulrajani at Nicholson Ranch said, “We are 10 days ahead of last year.”
David Cook, who farms throughout the Valley with Cook Vineyard Management said, “We’re seeing bud-break in Carneros with chardonnay since last Tuesday.”
Though, all in all, Coturri says things aren’t that unusual. “The last few years have been really late. This to me is more normal. I prefer seeing an earlier year than the late years we’ve had for the last few years,” he said. And looking on the bright side, he added, “I might be able to get done by Nov. 1.” With the benefit being that growers, besides booking their trips to Hawaii early, won’t have to contend with the frost and rains in the fall, and if summer is cooler than usual the grapes have more time to ripen.
The fear many growers have right now is that with cooler weather coming this week – temperatures will approach freezing at night – and rain expected, this year’s exposed crop runs the risk of becoming damaged at this early stage in the game.
“I don’t think that we’ve seen the end of winter,” cautioned Benziger. “Winter is out there hiding under a rock. We’ll see it rear its head one more time.”
The real risks, in addition to the potential for frost damage, especially in the dry soils where frost can hit the roots harder and do severe damage, are the cool temperatures stunting the shoot growth, which has been fast out of the gate so far.
Another effect of the dry winter is that valuable nutrients are less available to the growing shoots when they need them most. Because of the dry conditions, Benziger said he is planning to start irrigating vines in his Sonoma Mountain vineyard as soon as bud break becomes uniform, but, he added that in his 34 growing seasons, “I can’t remember irrigating this early.”