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Buds Point to Another Early Year

April 2015
by Wines & Vines staff
Bud Break
Chardonnay buds start to swell at Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity, Ore.

San Rafael, Calif.—From California to British Columbia, vines are beginning to wake in vineyards across much of the West Coast, and 2015 is shaping up to be another early vintage.

Some vines in California exhibited bud swelling as early as late January, and by mid- to late February it appeared winter had come to an end in the Golden State.

Francisco Araujo, senior viticulturist for Atlas Vineyard Management, which farms approximately 1,000 acres in California's North Coast, Santa Barbara County and Oregon's Willamette Valley, said 2015 is shaping up to be an early growing season. "Growers are seeing signs of an early onset, especially in vineyards where soil is shallower and the vines are weaker," he told Wines & Vines.

From Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, vineyard manager Chris Hammell said, "We had fairly widespread regrowth after harvest, primarily from the tops of the shoots/canes. This is very unusual. We are seeing bud swell early, as of Feb. 1, in our warmest sites.

"We have had a very mild winter and would actually prefer frost during this dormant time," Hammell said. "From a timing perspective, last year was very early. It's really too soon to tell, but things are looking pretty much the same."

A few nights of below-freezing temperatures in Mendocino County in late February already did some damage, said Joe Webb, owner and winemaker of Foursight Wines in Boonville, Calif., and the current president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association. Webb said he knows of one vineyard near Philo, Calif., where the owner opted not to frost protect because less than 1% of vines were showing growth. Unfortunately, what was showing was fried.

Webb said he installed a wind machine last year as well as a Davis Instruments Vantage Pro2 weather station. Data from the weather station--as well as from others in the county--is sent to the private weather firm Fox Weather in Fortuna, Calif., which provides frost forecasts for Mendocino County and other regions in California.

Better data ensures more accurate forecasts, so Webb knows when to turn on the wind machine or just wait for temperatures to drop to 32° F or colder and turn on the sprinklers. "We'd rather not have the noise and burn the propane if we don't have to," he said of the wind machine.

Jason McConnell, winemaker and owner of Rivino winery and vineyards located near Ukiah, Calif., on the Russian River, said he had to turn on his sprinklers during the last week of February, but the vines were faring OK. "It was more localized bud break....But we are now basically out across the property," he said in early March. "There have been two very long frost-control nights so far, which are just a big drain on everything: water, fuel, sleep," he said.

In some areas of the Northwest, growers began starting to see buds break in mid-March. Buds had started breaking by March 11 on Early Muscat vines at Celestina Vineyard in Southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, according to grapegrower John Pratt, while Keith Pilgrim at Terra Blanca Winery on Red Mountain in Washington state was doing everything he could to slow down his vines. "Mother Nature seems to be bent on an early start to the growing season," Pilgrim told Wines & Vines.

The winery co-owner had delayed pruning on vines that are typically earliest to bud in an effort to dissuade them, but with temperatures in the 70°s--unseasonable for March, where the long-term average high in March crests 57° F--growers proved no match for nature.

Pilgrim said he wished it were sufficiently late in the season that he could count on temperatures staying warm enough to guarantee a lack of frost. "We will probably have bud break on some of the early varietals (by March 25), which would make us about three-plus weeks early. If it would just warm up and stay frost-free, that would be great."

David Beck of Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity, Ore., understands Pilgrim's anxiety.

Growing degree-days in Beck's region started to accumulate three to four weeks ahead of normal--but touches of frost in the vineyard during mid-March forestalled any confidence that winter was over.

"Bud break in 2014 was around April 6, so we are not far away," he said.

"The danger, of course, is bud loss due to a spring frost, and we are certainly not out of frost season."

Beck noted that he'd already seen evidence of some drying in the root zone.

"The 1-foot soil moisture probes are starting to show some drying," he said. "Although there is no movement at 3 feet, this is exceptionally early for the 1-foot probe to show movement."

Indeed, federal weather watchers noted in mid-March that snow water equivalent was just 9% to 15% of normal throughout the Willamette Valley and into Southern Oregon.

"Each day without snow accumulation from here on out drops the probability of any recovery closer to being highly unlikely," remarked Greg Jones of Southern Oregon University in his most recent climate update to growers.

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