Buds Burst Across California

Vineyards return to normal, slightly later schedule this growing season

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine grape vineyard santa lucia highlands bud break
Pinot Noir buds break at Tondre Grapefield in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Testarossa Winery produces wine from 5 acres of Pinot and 2 acres of Chardonnay.
San Rafael, Calif.—Since we broke the news March 3 that vineyards in Fresno County were showing bud break, many wine grape growers across California have reported hitting the yearly benchmark.

With the help of the Twittersphere, we pinpointed winery operations from Temecula to the Santa Cruz Mountains that had welcomed the start of the 2017 growing season.

The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association reported that Las Positas Vineyards spotted the first bud break on its Chardonnay and Nebbiolo vines March 6, which was similar timing as recent years. Las Positas produces 3,000 cases per year and farms 34 vineyard acres.

Walking the vines
Monte de Oro Winery produces some 12,000 cases from its 72 acres of vineyards in Southern California’s Temecula Valley. Winemaker David Albright said although he’d expected the winter rains to delay bud break, this year’s debut was similar to that of recent years.

Pinot Gris led the field about three weeks ago, Albright said. Red varieties began to follow about a week later, starting with Tempranillo.

The rains were sorely needed, he said. During the drought years, salts were not being leached from the soils. “We may see results in two to three years,” thanks to this winter’s generous precipitation this winter, Albright predicted.

Further north in Paso Robles, Rabbit Ridge Winery & Vineyards produces some 80,000 cases per year from 500 acres of vines. It’s a lean operation, with a permanent staff of only four.

Reached Monday, winemaker/vineyard manager Erich Russell said that bud break was 90%-100% complete at the “home” vineyard, the southernmost and coolest of the blocks.

This development spanned every variety: Roussanne, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache and Grenache Blanc, Russell said. While the winemaker hadn’t yet checked other vineyards, he said they are usually ahead of the home block.

Reflecting on the past two years, Russell said bud break came later this year, but more along a normal time line. In 2015, bud break began in early February. This season, pruning is complete, and the winery has already performed its first disking.

The winter rains should solidify local groundwater supplies. “We had more rain this year than in the past three years combined.” Russell too is happy to have soil salts washed away: Heavy accumulations had caused him to quit growing grapevines on about 120 acres. He hopes to replant, but will wait to see how his wells perform this summer.

From Monterey County, De Tierra Vineyard in Salinas produces 3,000 cases per year from 12 vineyard acres. Owner Anna Russell reported that seeing bud break last week was more like an average season than the past two years, which saw bud break two weeks early.

Planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Riesling, De Tierra’s vineyard acres appear to be in good shape, but she’s waiting to see fruit set and expects still more rain. After pre-pruning in January, hand pruning was complete in mid-February.

Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is varied; it spans moderate-climate coastal sites and much warmer inland wineries abutting Silicon Valley.

Windy Oaks Estate is in the southern reaches of the mountain range in Corralitos, producing 4,500 cases from its 28 vineyard acres. Assistant winemaker Spencer Schultze reported that bud break just started on the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Albariño vines. (With the help of a local subcontractor, Windy Oaks makes a rare Albariño sparkling wine, which has proven very popular with consumers.)

Schultze said, “Buds started popping this weekend, March 16-17.” He’d seen signs earlier last week, he said. He called timing of bud break about normal, although last year was earlier.
Bill Brousseau, director of winemaking at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, said he produces its 24,000 cases of mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with grapes sourced from 150 acres in 28 different vineyards scattered throughout the Central Coast region.

Brousseau oversees all of these and terms himself their “personal trainer.” He said bud break in every vineyard occurred 2 to 4 weeks later than the past two years, but closer to an average year, when buds start breaking around the end of February.

“The closer you are to the ocean, the earlier it happens,” he observed. Because he sources from such varied locations, he sees a wide range of dates for all aspects of grapegrowing.

He characterized bud break as a function of soil temperature. When diurnal vineyard temperatures are consistently 50° F, bud break can happen, Brousseau said.

He began pruning some of the vineyards right after New Year’s Day. “If you prune too late, you lower the power of the grapes and reduce their fruitfulness,” Brousseau said. When conditions warm up too fast, vine dormancy is not long enough to provide true hibernation.

The winter rains supplied a longer dormancy and allowed soil microbes to develop. He expects to apply less fertilizer this year. “In theory, a vintage like this will allow clusters to elongate more and bigger berries to develop,” he said. He said the last similar vintage was in 2006.

He likened the process to deep-sea fishing: “You have the skills, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. You never have the same conditions.”

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