I should have guessed something was up when the second week in January it was summer in winter. Off our back deck, the temperatures were in the mid to high 80’s for 13 straight days. Believe me, I was checking vines for bud swelling daily towards the end of the month.
The days were not only balmy, but neither were the nights. The coldest it got at our home overlooking our Paso Westside vineyard was in the high 40’s. For Paso, that qualifies as weird. The vines definitely looked like they were trying their best to swell up, but never got to the point of bud break. No question I was worried about the summer weather we were having, but as long as it didn’t precipitate bud break, I felt we were okay.
Then came February, (plus the last 2 days of January). Winter returned with a vengeance, and our lows registered mid to high 20’s in the colder valley vineyard. Winter here at CerroPrieto dragged on well into spring, when suddenly, one day winter fled and summer arrived. Well after March 21st we had our first day of not spring, but summer.
Once again we were basking in 80-90 degree weather, without the intervening spring. This time, we did get bud swelling, and not long after, bud break. It was late, but the buds came out. The only way we knew it was spring was by of the monster winds that visited during what was nominally called “Spring”.
The first winds registered in the high 60’s mph, and evidence of their presence were huge piles of 60 foot Live Oaks, knocked down en masse, with one pile numbering 12 trees piled up like a big bunch of splinters. We had a second such event just below our house, but it was composed of only 6 trees worth of splinters.
2005 had been a big year for us with rain totaling some 42”. In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we had 16”, 12” and 9” respectively. It is no secret that 2009- 2010 was a huge rain year, and we registered 41”, which ran clear into April. Here in Paso Robles, every mile west of the 101 Freeway, the rainfall increases by roughly 1” for every mile west that you go. So, there were some folks 15 miles east of town who got some 15-20”, whereas normally they would get only about 7”.
The wacky part was the late rains, which tried their best to sabotage grape farmers by raining hard every time we mowed, or weed whacked, or macheted, or hoed. In all, we repeated all four tasks up to five times. Part of that is my own fault, as I had refused to usepre-emergents (preemptive herbicides that can contaminate ground water). But next year, we will use pre-emergents, because each trip through the vineyard with hoes, or machetes, costs out at $4000. That’s right. It’s expensive…especially the way this all came down.
The weird part was during bloom. Although absolutely perfect at the outset, it wassubmarined by gods of wrath: Not only heavy late rains, but 2 monstrous wind storms. The first I already alluded to earlier. The second, some 3 weeks later, and still during bloom, (but near the end). Again, winds were in the 60+ mph range, with gusts strong enough to knock down more trees. This time, the biggest pile of Live Oaks numbered sixteen. From a distance it truly looked like a tepee made of broken sticks, but up close it looked like a giant mass of snapped 20” diameter trees that had been broken in anger by some monster from the sky. During that windstorm I turned the outside spotlights on near midnight, and was amazed to see massive oaks being blown into a near horizontal position…and not just several of them. They all were virtually at 90 degrees to their normal upright position.
Wind aside, the weird and wacky continued when once thru bloom it appeared that only the Merlot had been hit hard by the late rains and winds. The fruit set resulted in many clusters looking like banana clusters, not grapes. Instead of one long rachus there were 4 or 5, each half to a third the length of normal. There were “aces and spaces” among the odd looking rachi, with early estimates at Merlot fruit set somewhere at only 1/3 normal. Instead of .33 lbs/cluster, we looked to have maybe only .15 lbs or less. As it turned out, the rachi filled in, and we ended up with a projected .25 lbs/cluster, but as of yet, we have nary a berry that has started to go through veraison.
As a matter of fact, we started veraison July 3rd in 2009, but had not one berry veraisng by August 3rd of this year. August 4th we had 3 berries of Pinot Noir beginning color change, and just a week later all Pinot and most Syrah is pretty well through veraison. This was not a long protracted veraison as we have had the last 3 drought years. This was veraison inhyperspeed. I overheard a buyer and grower’s rep discussing the wacky weather, and they agreed , “This ought to be a great yr for Syrah”.
The rest of the story is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which needed only a week from start to finish in some blocks, whereas other blocks have yet to move. This is definitely due to cold, as our lower Cab has yet to turn and our higher elevation Cab is finished.
As I write this today, it reached 89 degrees. It was a beautiful day for grapes. Unfortunately the fog didn’t lift until well past 10 a.m., so we didn’t get near the heat and light we needed. One old salt said that he didn’t even keep his heat/light days’ data this year because we couldn’t possibly catch up. That may have been so, but there is no question that, with the rain, the cold weather staying around until the last two days, veraison has been way speedier than the last 3 yrs. The springtime has turned into 7-10 days of blistering summer, followed by a return of cold spring weather for the last 5-6 weeks.
I have lived here for 33 seasons now, and can say that without any doubt, this year is one for the record books. The high pressure system keeping the hot air in the Midwest and East Coast, is similar to the low pressure system we have had here the last 6 weeks, except here it is cold and out east it is hot. There is a definite la Niña current offshore the Central California Coast, with water temperatures running 10 degrees cooler than normal. The Bay area and Napa are similarly situated, with record cold days virtually daily. Although I do not have first hand knowledge, I have heard Napa is about 3 weeks behind vineyard maturation-wise this year, which is what half our vineyard looks like too.
With the super cold days, the marine air hanging around all day( la brisa, in Spanish), and fog every morning, it has been essential to maintain good mildew spraying routines. In theWestside, mildew is a real problem for those that missed spraying dates. Anyone who is going totally organic is bound to have mildew problem this year. Disease pressure has been high for almost 2 months now. If we can get more days like today…good and hot…then we may be okay, especially if the rest of our Cabernet and Merlot go through veraison.
Additionally, those vineyards with low crop loads (2-2.5 Tons/acre) will have less chance of mildew than those with heavier crops. We have been hedging and leaf pulling on shaded side of vines to help sunlight and airflow get to grapes and leaves. An added benefit of these two tasks is that sprays, when used, are much more effective.
A lot of Westside Cabernet is way behind, but our experience at Cerro Prieto has been that once it gets kick started, it races through veraison. We just need to get it going.
It would be nice to see summer before we are in autumn. The way this year is going, however, no one has a clue what lies ahead. I have advocated for low crop yields for a number of years now, because weird weather such as this favors a low yield vineyard such as ours. Those folks hanging 5 Tons/acre of fruit or more are in for a rude surprise.
In times of wacky, weird, wild, wet, and windy weather, low yields are also going to make the difference between ripening grapes vs. not. It is no secret that if a vineyard has world class terroir, then low yields will translate into truly great wines.