Frosty organic grapevines.
As the dead of winter passes and visions of spring are in the air, life in the vineyards is once again returning. Our annual pruning work is well underway and we are now in the process of preparing for the eminent bud-break of the vines. With the emergence of fresh green growth on the vines we must have all of our frost protection systems in place.
Spring frost is one of the primary challenges to growing winegrapes on the North Coast of California. From the first signs of emergence from dormancy in early March until the last frosts of May, Mendocino County grape growers must be on call to protect their precious vines from freezing temperatures due to sudden cold snaps. There are a number of agricultural measures which can allow for lower temperatures to occur without damaging vines. These include late pruning to delay bud-break, mowing down cover crops early, increasing cold air drainage out of the vineyard and restricting cold air movement into the vineyard.
Unfortunately, these passive measures are often not enough to eliminate frost damage in colder areas. For the majority of vineyards in Mendocino County the only effective solution to control spring frost events is to use water. The concept behind this technique is based on the latent heat released as water moves from a liquid to a solid state. By continuously applying water to the vineyard, the water changing from a liquid to a solid state on the vines creates heat and protects the vegetation from frost damage, but only down to 25°F
In a standard-sized overhead sprinkler system, we need to supply 50 gallons of water per minute per acre. These rotating head sprinklers wet the entire vineyard canopy and floor. They typically rotate every 30-60 seconds, and 30 sprinklers are needed per acre regardless of the vine spacing or trellis type. Fortunately, we have adequate water supplies in the spring to deliver the quantities of water needed to protect our vineyards during frost events.
Frosty grape leaves on the ground.
The infrastructure necessary to provide the water required to protect our 330 acres of vineyards in Redwood Valley and Potter Valley is quite extensive. We have ponds, pumps, filters, valves, weather stations, thermometers, miles of plumbing and hundreds of sprinkler heads. Not to mention the manpower required to operate and maintain these systems.
On any given night from March through May we have 4 people on call if temperatures drop below 35°F. At this temperature, alarms go off and frost patrol begins. We have to monitor 13 different sites and be prepared to pump water to run sprinklers if any site drops below 33°F.
Frost patrol and protection can be one the most grueling tasks of the year. There are many sleepless nights and stressful mornings for those working frost patrol as there is so much on the line. One night of vines getting burned by frost can ruin the entire crop for more than one vintage.
On the other hand, frost has a number of benefits for grapevines. Cold temperatures slow down the spread of powdery mildew and inhibit many insect pests. Without frost, vines would never go dormant and vine pests and diseases would run rampant. The addition of extra water in the Spring can also help boost vine growth and increase productivity. Without frost patrol, grape growers would have a lot less spring work and a lot less to complain about. Keeping busy definitely helps to keep us out of trouble.
Snow on grape bud.
The 2015 North Coast winegrape harvest began earlier than ever. At Frey Vineyards we began crushing grapes on August 24th. The early ripening varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc all matured rapidly and came in quick. Yields of these varieties were also lower than average, leading to worry that the entire 2015 crop would be shorter than expected. Most California wineries can rely on bulk finished wine to compensate for light crop yields. At Frey Vineyards we are limited in our ability to source bulk wines since additive-free wines are not available on the open market.
Organic Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
As we transitioned into harvesting mid-season reds some fields helped make up the difference, with good crops on Merlot, Petite Sirah and some Zinfandel. It became clear early on that the overall quality of the 2015 vintage had potential to be exceptional. With no problem achieving adequate sugars for proper fermentation, late red varieties were allowed ample hang time to become physiologically mature. Not only were the sugars high enough but the grape seeds tasted nutty and the skins shed their bitterness. Meanwhile, seasonable autumn weather preserved optimal acidity for overall balanced fruit flavors.
An inch of rain in early September knocked the dust down and gave the vines a drink to help stall what would otherwise have been a rushed harvest. The rains then held off for another month avoiding any issues with rot and maintaining easy access into the vineyards for harvest equipment.
While we were working to wrap up the earliest harvest on record, my wife Eliza and I also welcomed our second child, Iris Ann Dahlen, into the world. Born on October 12th, in the heat of the last week of harvest, we all felt a sense of relief as the 2015 crush was nearing the end. The final load of grapes, on October 17th, came out of the 50 year-old Easterbrook Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard on our home ranch in Redwood Valley, and it was as perfect as its ever been.
Post-harvest organic vineyards in the mist.
Cover crop seeding and fall compost spreading soon followed and went smoothly. We finished in time to take advantage of early November rains. The rains gave the cover crop seed good germination and helped incorporate the compost into the soils. These practices help to feed the soil microorganisms that are the foundation of organic agriculture.
As we put the vines to rest for another winter we can reflect on the previous year. So many things went so well, yet there is always room for improvement. Every trip around the sun we learn from our previous mistakes and inevitably new challenges arise. The only universal constant is change and it is our task to adapt to whatever changes may arise.
Healthy soils, hearty vines, honest wines, happy people! Long live organic wines and family farms!
Peach tree in blossom in Frey organic Syrah vineyard.
April Fools Day dawned early for those who were foolish enough to sign up for vineyard frost protection. The first of April brought our first spring frost in the early morning hours and the first night of Frost Patrol. Temperatures dipped into the low 30s and grape growers throughout Mendocino County scurried about, running overhead irrigation to protect tender new grape shoots from freezing. Looking ahead into April we are anticipating much colder temperatures than we experienced in February and March. We expect many more nights of freezing temperatures before danger of frost ends in mid May.
The current fabled California Drought has created some of the most incredible vintages in recent memory. So far, 2015 has started with the warmest winter on record in California and consequently one of the earliest bud breaks observed on the North Coast. Every variety including Cabernet Sauvignon awoke from dormancy before the first of April. We are fortunately at our average seasonal rainfall for our region now and are looking forward to April showers to bring May flowers - grape flowers, that is!
Mustard cover crop in Frey organic Cab vineyard.
With the cover crops in full bloom and the fields abuzz with insects and birds, we are starting spring field cultivation. We are in the process of spreading composted grape skins, stems and seeds from previous harvests that will be incorporated into the soil when the cover crops are mowed and disked in as a green manure. This introduction of organic matter into the soils year after year is a cornerstone of our organic soil fertility management.
Young plantings of Tempranillo, Barbera and Malbec from 2013 at our Road D Ranch are getting established right on schedule for a first vintage of 2017. This site boasts USGS classified Red Vine Clay Loam soil, renowned for growing hearty red grape varietals in Redwood Valley. We look forward to experimenting with and adding these varieties to our portfolio of organic, additive-free wines.
After three flawless vintages, we are expecting Mother Nature to dish out some heavy weather in 2015. There is an Old Farmer’s Wive’s Tale that for one in every ten years of farming the conditions are perfect, and that is considered the norm. The nine years in between always bring something to complain about. We don’t need 2015 to be an extraordinary year, we’d be perfectly happy with another “normal” vintage! Cheers and good wishes for a happy and healthful spring season!
Crows search for worms and bugs behind the plow.
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.
After a near perfect growing season for the second year in a row, the 2013 grape harvest began fast, furious and early. The first grapes came through the crush pad on August 27th, about 2-3 weeks earlier than usual. Then an exceptionally warm and dry autumn stretched the harvest out for 10 weeks until the final load of grapes came in on November 4th! The first and last grapes to pass through the crusher this year were Chardonnay, often the first varietal to be wrapped up. In 33 years of winemaking at Frey Vineyards this has never happened! Every year is different and 2013 was no exception.
Derek, Andy & Adam, organic grape harvest, 2013!
Although we had our average of around 50 inches of rain this year, it fell in an abnormal pattern. December 2012 gave us some near flooding rainfall to contend with and we were anticipating a typically wet January 2013 as well, but it barely rained. Next came February, then March, then April, then May. With less than 6 inches of rainfall going into June we were expecting a California drought-like summer, and that is exactly what we got. Wild weather events included a little storm in June, a thundershower on 4th of July after seven days of 100+ degree weather, no rain in August, and an unusually wet storm at the end of September.
Not only was 2013 much drier than usual, it was quite a bit hotter as well. We saw numerous April days in the 90’s. May was next to normal aside from a rogue frosty night on the 28th that nipped the tender flower clusters in some Syrah and Merlot vineyards. June had six days that broke 100 degrees plus another eight days in the 90’s. The dry, windy 111 degree day on Saturday the 8th of June was especially devastating for our Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The delicate grape flowers were just beginning to set berries, and in some fields we actually watched them falling off in the breeze. The fruit simply got cooked in the heat.
After surviving 17 days between 100 and 112 degrees in July the vines enjoyed a relatively mellow August in Redwood Valley. With all the stress associated with the dry heat we began to see veraison (grape color change) in mid-July as opposed to early August. We had to kick it into high gear to prepare for an early and potentially fast-paced harvest. We had just completed installing irrigation and planting almost 16 acres of new vines in three different fields when harvest began with a bang!
The first weeks in August were full of activity. We harvested white grapes in the wee hours of the morning to bring them in cold for optimal whole cluster pressing. We spent time working out the mechanical kinks in the equipment and started the process of visiting vineyards to test sugars and acids and lay out the harvest schedule. Everything seemed to be happening at once, but then the weather shifted.
Despite two wet storms in September, October provided near perfect fall ripening conditions. We let our red grapes hang until they were fully physiologically ripe, perfect for organic, low intervention winemaking. With the good weather the sense of urgency lessened and we had one of our longest harvest seasons. It started early and stretched into a slow, lingering finish after 69 days. The wines are still young but are tasting great! We look forward to a great vintage with outstanding quality. Get ready for some delicious 2013 wines. Cheers!
We just completed our second wheat harvest, all of it grown between rows of our organic vineyards. This cereal harvest is a part of our ongoing experimentation with growing local organic food with the wine grapes.
Ripe organic wheat ready for harvest between the vines.
This year brought some changes to the wheat program, as Frey Vineyards bought out the other members of the group that originally purchased the mini-combine, while they upgraded their own machine for wheat harvesting in Mendocino County. Check out their website at Mendocino Grain Project. Having our own combine now gives us more flexibility for timing the harvest and experimenting with different crops.
Matthew Frey running the combine in the Frey Potter Valley vineyard.
A repair on the combine allowed us to harvest the wheat more efficiently. It now reaps a much larger percentage of the crop and the grains are coming out cleaner. The grinding stone also got a facelift, as Matthew Frey installed a new motor with variable speed, allowing us to fine-tune the grinding process.
Derek and Matthew harvesting organic wheat from between rows of organic winegrapes.
The crop in our Redwood Valley vineyards weighed in at over one thousand pounds. At our Potter Valley vineyard, which has very fertile soils, we pulled in over 3,000 pounds! Time to get baking! We hope to offer samples of the flour to our wine club members. You can join here! We will also be serving bread from our homegrown wheat at our upcoming midsummer party, Saturday, August 6th. Come and taste the wonder of fresh ground grains!