Style :: Food/Drink

California Vineyards Suffer Bizarre Spring Weather

by TRACIE CONE
Monday Jun 13, 2011
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PASO ROBLES, Calif. (AP) - Wild spring weather across California’s wine country has been enough to drive a vintner to drink.

From killer snow in the Sierra Nevada foothills to dry-season downpours along the coast to a hard freeze in temperate Paso Robles, 2011 is proving a challenging vintage.

"That’s what makes this business so damned interesting," said Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association.

It also can keep winemakers up at night.

Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard near Paso Robles, said winemaker Neil Collins has experienced many sleepless nights this spring.

"These people who envy the winemaker’s lifestyle should drive around here with Neil at 3 a.m. when he knows it’s freezing and there’s nothing he can do about it," Haas said.

Vintners have long joked that the weather is just like last year - different. But people expect to find constants in the nation’s premiere grape-growing state.

Rain is expected to taper in April and end by May, then not return until November. In those months, balmy temperatures awaken dormant vines from their winter slumber and buds start to break.

This year there has been frost and record rain in June. Sustained temperatures over 70 didn’t hit until this week in most wine regions.

Now just days before the official start of summer it looks like early spring across California wine country. Buds are just emerging and the fruit is forming far behind schedule.

"This weather is causing all kinds of problems, but it’s not the first time and not the last," Fiolek said. "Other products have a more ephemeral lifetime, but ours goes on and on and tells the story of the weather pattern."

While rain is good for some crops, late precipitation is not for California’s $18.5 billion wine industry. Regulating water controls the intensity of grape flavors - and too much causes mildew.

The most recent deluge Sunday and Monday across Napa and Sonoma forced crews back into some fields, where they hope that removing select leaves will fight mildew by increasing airflow.

This year there has been frost and record rain in June. Sustained temperatures over 70 didn’t hit until this week in most wine regions.

It’s snow, not rain, that caused problems in mountainous El Dorado County, where leafing vineyards have been hit by the same spring snow storms that have some ski resorts dreaming of remaining open through July 4.

"There’s nothing we can do about it, and we don’t even know the outcome yet," said Josh Bendick, winemaker at Holly’s Hill in the Sierra-Nevada foothills, where 4 inches accumulated May 15 on 6-inch shoots of viognier, an early blooming white wine-grape.

At Tablas Creek this week, Haas checked vines on the rolling 105-acres, where organically grown grapes are used to produce the critically acclaimed Rhone blends. Two all-night freezes in early April, which followed a warm March, wiped out the winery’s entire crop of grenache, grenache blanc, viognier and marssane. They’re key ingredients in the company’s wine blends and 35 percent of its acreage.

"Of the blocks that were out (leafing) we had 100 percent damage," said Haas, adding that only the neighbors with overhead sprinkling systems were spared.

Grapes are resilient plants that produce the best-tasting fruit while stressed. They can recover and push new shoots after a freeze, as Tablas Creek and others now are seeing.

But vineyards are tediously pruned each winter to place canes for optimal bunch growth. Now the new shoots are sprouting randomly like unwanted facial hair - in places Haas wishes they weren’t.

"It’s just weird," Haas said.

The cooler weather has left plant development a month behind schedule in some regions, saving some plants but creating the prospect of harvests in late October and early November, even early ripening pinot noir.

Now growers are hoping for a warm fall.

"Pinot in November? That’s just plain crazy," said winemaker Mike Waller at Calera Wine Company in Hollister.

A late harvest could mean chaos at wineries that stagger production by planting both early varieties such as chardonnay and late-ripening varieties such as cabernets.

This year Haas expects to harvest all 11 varieties nearly simultaneously, which will strain crews and equipment.

While quantities of some wines might be lower in 2011 - a 2001 freeze cut Tablas Creek production by half to 5,500 cases - quality shouldn’t be affected anywhere in the state.

"We deal with something every year," said Paul Goldberg of Bettinelli Vineyards in Napa, where last year’s challenge was the European grapevine moth. "With good weather on the horizon we’re hopeful this will be a good vintage."

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