Cool Start to Central Coast Season

Growers from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara weigh in on unusual growing season thus far

by Jaime Lewis
A developing Picpoul Blanc cluster on June 21 after fruit set at Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif. The winery uses the variety as a blending component for its rosé but plans to release a limited varietal bottling this year.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.—In the midst of a growing season marked by cool spring and summer temperatures, off-average bud break and fruit set, as well as continuing concerns surrounding labor and water availability, three growers reported on how the 2018 vintage is shaping up so far.

Dana Merrill and his team at Mesa Vineyard Management (MVM) boast a bird’s eye view of growing conditions in Santa Barbara County, as they’ve farmed both large commercial operations and highly specialized vineyard properties in the area for decades. At this point in the season, he said, yields are looking potentially lower, especially in Chardonnay, while Pinot Noir looks to be average.

“Bud break was a little early,” he said, citing the end of February and first week of March for Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay coming out a little later. Near Los Alamos, MVM started pruning the first week of January. “Labor supply was okay as the strawberries and other crops in the area had not started up yet,” he said.

With regard to water, Merrill said that most wells are holding standing water levels despite receiving 50% of the normal rainfall for the year.

Pressure from vine mealybug is high in MVM’s Santa Maria vineyards, he said, as it was last year, with less pressure near Los Alamos and Santa Ynez, and mildew pressure is also high due to cooler-than-normal spring temperatures. “We did frost-protect our vineyards with both overhead sprinklers and wind machines,” he said, adding that it was “colder than it has been in several years.”

Summer temperatures prove to be cooler than normal thus far, as well. To help keep free of mildew, particularly near Los Alamos, Merrill said MVM has shortened spray intervals and applied sulfur dust.

Under the Ranchos de Ontiveros moniker, James Ontiveros oversees two properties in the Santa Maria Valley: Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard (12.5 acres of Pinot Noir) and Rancho Viñedo Vineyard (12.5 acres of Chardonnay).

With fruit at “the BB stage” now, Ontiveros noted that in Santa Maria, the first signs of veraison historically appear around the 4th of July holiday. “That won’t be the case this year,” he said, estimating that veraison will be two to three weeks behind due to unusually cool, foggy conditions marked by a high marine layer, lack of sunshine and wind. “It’s been pretty miserable through May and June.”

With temperatures refusing to budge out of the 50s and 60s for many days, along with relative humidity, Ontiveros noted that mildew pressure is high. Also, as usual in Santa Maria, wind was an issue, specifically at bloom.

“Generally, the Santa Maria Valley is going to be below average for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay due to poor bloom weather,” he said, citing a high marine layer that didn’t burn-off or blow away with the morning fog. “The hard part is knowing how to define an average after so many years of bizarre conditions.”

Ontiveros estimated that growers across the region will experience a 20% dip in yield, but he’s heard other farmers estimate larger losses. “We’re not going to see berry sizes compensating for a lack of set berries,” he said.

Like Merrill, Ontiveros said a lack of water remains critical. “There’s certainly nothing that’s happened to improve the situation,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, having one good rain year out of the last seven doesn’t begin to make up for the other six.”

On Paso Robles’ west side, Halter Ranch Vineyard has grown to include 280 acres under vines, with a composition of 60% Bordeaux varieties and 40% Rhône varieties, plus Tempranillo.

Vineyard manager Lucas Pope said Halter Ranch Vineyard’s bud break was about two weeks behind average. “We had that warm February — it hit 90 degrees! — and going into March we had 4 inches of rain, so we were worried about what was going to happen,” he said. “Then 12 inches of rain came down in one storm, promoting strong growth, especially among the weeds.

“Weed pressure has been really high from spring moisture, but mildew pressure hasn’t been high because it suddenly turned so cool. It was a warm winter and cool spring, which is really weird.”

All told, Halter Ranch has only seen 16 inches of rain this season, just a fraction of 26 to 28 inches, which Pope calls average. “Last year was an anomaly with 44 inches but we’re back to that drought pattern again,” he said, noting that though spring rains kept irrigation to a minimum, it is still a necessity.

As for pest pressures in the vineyard, Pope said insects have been less of a concern than animals, as frost knocked back the population of mites and leaf hoppers in the spring. During that frost, he mowed (“for a couple degrees of protection”) and ran frost fans, but he did see some damage on Grenache Blanc and some whites. “That frost kept us on our toes for a week or two,” he said.

Like Ontiveros, Pope is seeing BB-sized berries; unlike Ontiveros, however, Pope estimates that yields will be heavy, though not as heavy as last year. “We’ll probably pull in 700 tons from 280 acres,” he estimated. “We try to target a minimum three-foot canopy to get photosynthesis just right, and all canopies look good so far, with no nutrient deficiencies.”

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