There has been a lot of talk about drought this year in California, and two months ago we were in the middle of one of the driest winters on record. Thankfully, since the beginning of February we have seen nearly 30 inches of rainfall in Mendocino County. Lake Mendocino, which provides water locally and for heavier populated Sonoma County downstream is finally filling up. Now, looking around, all of our ponds are overflowing, the hillsides are radiating brilliant shades of green, and the grapevines are awakening from their winter dormancy by sprouting fresh shoots.
Organic Syrah budding out, Frey Vineyards.
While grapes can survive in extremely dry climates, water is crucial to grape growing in areas of California like ours for frost protection. While the vines are breaking bud and the tender new growth that will become the fruiting wood for the season is emerging, we often experience killing freezes that can jeopardize the fruit and decimate a vine’s ability to produce to its full potential. To avoid frost damage grape growers use overhead sprinklers. When the nighttime temperatures approach freezing we turn on sprinklers which keep the temperature at 32 degrees and prevent damage to young shoots and leaves. We are still expecting to see some spring frosts, but so far nothing of consequence. This is good for two reasons: it allows us to save our precious water for irrigation during the dry months and it allows grape farmers to get some sleep instead of prowling the vineyards checking thermometers in the wee hours of freezing nights.
The month of April is quite often rampant with the anxieties of spring fever, and this year is no exception. We are wrapping up our vine pruning and tying work. Pruning is very important because it allows a farmer to control crop load, which directly affects quality. We are also moving full speed ahead with our mowing and cultivating operations. The grape prunings are chopped with a shredder and incorporated back into the soil. Disking in between vine rows incorporates organic matter from cover crops and also locks moisture in the soils by breaking capillary action that allows evaporation through the ground.
Long-range forecasts are calling for a hot and dry summer. During hot summers with temperatures over 100 degrees, Mendocino County enjoys temperature swings of up to 50 degree between day and night. This provides the setting for excellent fruit quality because the daytime heat leads to good sugar development and the cool nights keep the acid high, yielding rich and balanced fruit. Although there are still at least five months until we begin harvest, with quite a few variables to consider, I am beginning to believe that this year is going to be a top-notch vintage!
Spring chickens (and a duck) in organic Syrah Vineyard.