It’s been interesting, so far. We saw the first signs of new growth right on time, middle of March, accompanied by night after night of frost. 2008 has been called the worst year for frost in about 30 years and millions of dollars in loss was reported throughout the north coast.
So, what do we do about it? As they say, 80% of success is just showing up and Geoff, our winemaker/vineyard manager, soon lost track of how many nights he showed up, driving around the vineyard checking temperatures. Damage starts when the temperature drops below 32F. and, if it’s getting close, he turns on the wind machine, which looks like a giant fan. It simply moves the air so the coldest won’t settle down on the vineyard. Some growers use smudge pots, which burn oil or diesel, to warm the vines, and others use overhead sprinklers to keep the new growth insulated right at 32. There are growers who take a calculated risk and don’t have any frost protection and many of those growers paid the price this year. And, some vineyard managers reported crop loss in spite of showing up and doing the work. We count ourselves very lucky to have come through such a challenging situation unscathed.
Daytime temperatures were fine and the new shoots grew like crazy, as they always do, in the early spring. We spend time in April and May refining the work we did at pruning time. It’s very common to see more shoots than we anticipated and suckers that don’t belong, so we thin them out and also tuck the remaining ones up into the trellis wires as they lengthen.
May was cooler than normal, for the most part, until it suddenly heated up just as the vines began to flower, mid month. We had temperatures around 100F. for about four days, which can burn the flowers and cause crop loss. About a week later we saw significant rainfall, which is another way to impair pollination.
A blessed oddity of the grape flower is that it’s self pollinating. This means we don’t have to concern ourselves about bees or wind – just the weather.
After making his cluster counts, Geoff, again, counted his blessings because while he saw some loss in the Cabernet Franc it wasn’t severe and the clusters generally appear to be well formed. In fact, there was cluster thinning to do in almost all sections of the vineyard, especially the irrepressible Petit Verdot. The winter pruning is the greatest tool we have to determine crop size but, ultimately the vine calls the shots. Of course, when the counts show a deficit, there’s nothing to be done. More often, in our very favorable climate, we see more than we anticipated and thinning is essential to promote flavor intensity later on. He will continue to evaluate the crop level as the season progresses.
Shoot development looks good and Geoff has continued removing shoots and leaves, strategically, to improve light exposure, which heightens fruitiness. The thinning also improves air flow, and helps keep the risk of mold or mildew to the minimum. As soon as the shoot growth tapers off he’ll hedge the tips. Hedging the shoots keeps the leaf canopy in balance with the crop which prevents excess shading and plays down potential green character.
The grapes look like small peas, right now, and aren’t recommended for tasting! They’ll continue to plump to the size of small blueberries and should start turning color later this month. We’ll be back a little later with another update. Keep your fingers crossed for a mild summer!