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Rain Soaks Vineyards, Closes Wineries

February 2017
by Jane Firstenfeld

San Rafael, Calif.—After enduring half a decade of drought, vineyards in Northern California were drenched in the past month, but all that rain delivered problems as well.

The Russian River Valley historically has experienced disaster-level floods; the second week of January, local TV stations broadcast shots of residents kayaking inside their own homes. From Balletto Vineyards & Winery in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County), Calif., brand ambassador Nick Frey commented that even a week after the early January storm, winery customers were still calling to see if Balletto was open. An emergency alert advising people to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel was broadcast on smartphones for several days, further deterring visitors.

Most employees were able to get to work, but some residing in western Sonoma County encountered five-hour commutes, and power outages lasting two days made communication difficult.

Most of the water has receded, and the vineyards are doing OK, John Balletto said, but although pruning season is in full swing, some areas are still flooded and cannot be pruned for at least two to three weeks.

“We know that a lot of rain helps leach out the salts in the soil, and waters down deep,” he said. “The month of May will predict the crop when all vineyards are in bloom.”

Operating since 2001, 22,000-case Balletto farms 600 acres in the Russian River Valley. Although Balletto has ponds to collect treasured rainwater, he said this mercifully wet season sends a good lesson that still more storage is needed, so all the water doesn’t end up in the Pacific Ocean.

Nancy Woods at 3,000-case Merriam Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif., said that it’s generally a slow time of year for tasting rooms. But, she said, she had never previously closed the tasting room due to weather, as she did Jan. 8. The tasting room has been open since 2009.

On the borderline
The Los Carneros AVA, which spans the southern parts of Sonoma and Napa counties, provided mixed reviews of storm impact. According to the University of California Cooperative Extension, total precipitation in the dual-county Carneros district during all of January 2016 amounted to 6.3 inches. The same month in 2015 collected zero and in 2014, the total was 0.06 inches. Rainfall in the first 17 days of January 2017 was 6.48 inches, with more predicted by forecast models.

Located at the busy intersection of Highways 121 and 116, the tasting room at Schug Carneros Estate twice closed early, according to Crista Johnson. The access road crosses a creek and floods out after heavy rains, especially when combined with “king tides.”

Part of the intersection was closed for almost a week, making it virtually impossible for staff to get to work, and all had to leave early one day to avoid being trapped on the property. The tasting room was closed all day Jan. 8.

Prior to the storm, “We had started to prune, paint wounds and tie, and we had to take a breather,” Johnson said. As soon as the weather cleared, a full crew was back in the vineyards. Lower blocks were saturated, but Schug installed drain tiles many years ago, so vineyard blocks were drying out rapidly.

Johnson is optimistic that groundwater is being restored. The vineyards operate on two wells. Although Schug doesn’t have ponds or reservoirs, several of its growers do, and they are now filled close to capacity.

At Liana Estates in Napa, traffic slowed during the rainy week, and getting to work was a struggle for many employees, according to Emily Byrne. Some could not clock in due to road closures in Marin and Sonoma counties, and the commute took significantly longer for those who could find a route. The 25,000-case winery farms 100 acres of vineyards, and rain washed away a large chunk of ground surrounding a barn behind the tasting room.

Further north in Napa Valley
Jeff Dreyfus, who manages 100,000-case Hall Wines’ tasting room in St. Helena, Calif., said traffic was impacted by the weather, and the tasting room closed early two days to ensure staff could get home safely. Many of the crossroads between Highway 29 and the Silverado trail were closed due to flooding, and parts of Highway 29 were down to a single lane of alternating traffic near Oakville.

Situated on a floodplain in the Rutherford Bench, 10,000-case Alpha Omega Winery was heavily affected by the rain, according to Kelly Carter, communications director. The visitor parking lot flooded Jan. 8, and the winery closed at 2 p.m. rather than 6 p.m.; a tasting terrace had been drenched and closed earlier in the day.

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