Bud Break Spreads Up the West Coast

Wine grapevines begin spring growth and frost watch

by Paul Franson
nicole's vineyard j russian river
Pinot Noir buds emerge at J Vineyards & WInery's Russian River Valley site Nicole's Vineyard. Photo by George Rose
Napa, Calif.—Each year, grapegrowers wait anxiously for bud break, but they’re always a little nervous when it occurs, for then the tender buds are highly susceptible to frost and even rain and hail damage. This week Wines & Vines surveyed growers from the Central Coast to the Pacific Northwest to see where they stand.

Central Coast
Starting with the Santa Barbara area in the south, Dana Merrill of Mesa Vineyard Management said that Santa Maria and Los Alamos had strong bud break for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Most vines currently have a few inches of new growth.

Christopher Taranto, the communications director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance reported an average bud break with early varieties out. Chardonnay and some of the white Rhône varieties have been out anywhere from one week to 10 days. The later-to-bud varieties and those pruned late for better management have not broken yet. Depending on the weather it’s possible that the remaining varieties could be out in another week, he said, though it’s still too early to forecast crop potential.

Taranto cautioned, “Frost will continue to be a factor in the Paso Robles AVA until mid-May. We haven’t yet had any significant frost events, but frost protection is already on the ready. Although we are currently 50% below average rainfall for the year, expectations are positive for a good year.”

Merrill, who also manages vineyards in San Luis Obispo County, reported that bud break in Paso Robles appears to be on the later side of normal. This is good news in terms of avoiding frost on the new shoots, but it could mean a later harvest eventually. It’s been a very dry winter, Merrill said, the third-driest on record. Many growers have irrigated since January, which adds to input costs, and the vines miss the beneficial flushing out of salts in the soils. The Paso Robles area is just leafing out.

Steve Lohr, executive vice president and COO of vineyards for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, said that in Lohr’s Paso Robles vineyards the Cabernet Sauvignon is about a week away from bud break, and the Merlot and Petit Verdot are already out roughly one inch.

In Lohr’s Arroyo Seco appellation of Monterey County, the winery’s late-pruned Pinot Noir is out one-half to 1 inch, and the Chardonnay has shoots averaging 4 inches, with three to four leaves present.

Jason Smith of Paraiso Vineyards in Soledad, Calif., said, “Bud break is here in Monterey County. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even the later varieties in the southern end of the county like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are starting to push. Although we haven’t seen rainfall in a while, we were able to get a nice root flush in the early winter months. The vines look healthy and strong...moving toward a great growing year in 2013.”   

James Ewart, winemaker at Noble Vines, told Wines & Vines that bud break at San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey County "has all but been completed, except for a late-pruned Sauvignon Blanc block. After a dry winter, we have been busy keeping the soil moist to promote even budburst. As for timing, we are about average."

Santa Cruz Mountains
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mary Lindsay at Muns Vineyard and the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains, reported, “At our higher elevations, where the nights are still quite cold, bud break this year is about normal. Bud break in the Chardonnay at about 2,000-feet elevation occurred the second week of March. Last year bud break was quite late and occurred about a month later.”

She continued, “At Muns Vineyard, at 2,600 feet elevation, we declared bud break in the Pinot last week with the buds swelling, but they are just now starting to leaf out. This is about normal timing.

“At this elevation the nights continue to be cold,” Lindsay said. “Almost through March it was still in the 30ºs at night, sometimes into the 40ºs. We still are concerned about the threat of frost damage. We had 25 inches of rain at the end of last year and less than 4 inches since the end of December. So although we have had about our normal rainfall for the season, we are concerned it has been so dry at the start of this year—and I hear this concerned reflected by other growers in the area.”

She added, “At lower elevations bud break has occurred earlier, is on ‘normal’ track, and this year’s vintage is well on its way.”

David Shattuck, winemaker at Clarksburg Wine Co., reported, “Bud break began in Clarksburg approximately two weeks ago. While many of the early varieties like Chardonnay have reached full bud break, many other varieties have only begun bud elongation, and differentiated leaves are not visible.”

Napa Valley
In the Carneros region in southern Napa County, Calif., Peter Molnar reports that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are out between 2 and 3 inches.

Tom Farella in Coombsville, east of Napa, said that Chardonnay is leafing out, Merlot is just starting to leaf out (buds have all “broken” vs. leafing out), and Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc are just breaking.

Steve Moulds in the western foothills of Oak Knoll has seen bud break. “At this point our neighbors are cutting down their cover crop to allow the warmth of the naked earth to warm the tender buds as much as possible during our frost nights.”

He added, “Those who grow early budding Pinotage, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo or Nebbiolo already have their spray rigs at the ready to protect from powdery mildew. The Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cab Franc are also nearing the spray stage.”

“Those of us with later blooming varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are fine-tuning the vines with our final pass at pruning to forestall that bud break a few more days. The rains this time of year make Eutypa lata a major concern. We all pay a lot of attention to covering pruning cuts and not asking for trouble by pruning too close to a rain, which might endanger the shoots by allowing a fungus to enter the cut.”

At Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, Zinfandel is in bud break with Merlot just about to start. Overall it’s a bit behind schedule.

Also in Napa Valley, well-known vineyard manager Jim Barbour, who also owns Barbour Vineyards, said, “In general we’re seeing bud break throughout the valley in all varietals, each in varying stages. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Petit Verdot are farthest along and out about 1.5 inches. Most Cabernet Sauvignon is at least at popcorn stage, if not farther. His records indicate that the vines are about three to five days ahead of last year.

In reviewing all the vineyards he manages, a client on Pritchard Hill is out the farthest with 4- to 6-inch shoot length on Chardonnay and 3- to 4-inch length on Merlot. “Their Cabernet Sauvignon has shoot length about 1- to 2 inches.”

From atop Howell Mountain above Napa Valley, Pat Stotesbery of Ladera Vineyards reported, “The vines are still pretty much asleep. Sap is running, but no bud break. Vines that were not pre-pruned were pushing but have now been pruned back.”

He added that he is on frost watch.

Sonoma County
Ryan Decker of Rodney Strong Wine Estates said bud break in the Alexander Valley is relatively on time this spring. Chardonnay has an average of two to three unfolded leaves, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are still about a week away from bud break in most places, he said.

“Hillside Merlot has one to two leaves, while valley floor Merlot is just barely popping out. Hillside Malbec seems to be leading the way for all red varieties, with vineyards at 1,800-2,000 feet showing 4-plus leaves in some places,” Decker said.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery already has seen bud break in its Russian River Valley vineyards. “The first signs of buds pushing came as early as the last week of February due to the warmer, drier February weather,” reported Greg Miller, director of wine. “The consistency of the weather has so far allowed an even bud break. If it continues, this natural uniformity among the vines now will greatly relieve the growers later in the season with managing uniformity of the fruit development.”

“The similar weather patterns in March have helped bud break progress smoothly. On the Jordan estate in southern Alexander Valley, we’ve already seen bud break in both Merlot and Petit Verdot. Estate Cabernet vines have pushed buds on our highest-elevation hillsides, but we’re still one to two weeks away on the lower blocks.”

George Rose reported that all nine (about 250 acres) of the J Vineyards & Winery estate vineyards in Russian River Valley are now fully into bud break, with some younger vines leafing out more vigorously. This includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. “We are about two weeks behind where we were last year in terms of vine growth, and it’s too early to make any predictions about crop sizes. The recent damp weather (about half an inch of rain) has had no effect on the vines but has jump-started the cover crop growth. We will become ever vigilant for any signs of mildew if the wet pattern continues. At this point, we are off to a good start to the 2013 growing season.”

Linda Schwartz, president of Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, said that in Sonoma County’s Ross-Seaview AVA “buds are swelling, but most vines have chosen to wait before they produce their first leaves. Some of the more adventurous vines modestly show about one inch of new green growth.”

Bud break in the far west corner of the region is generally later than in most areas of Sonoma County, Schwartz said. “This trend of late bud break has been very helpful to cool coastal vineyards, as it delays bloom to June, when the weather is warm, dry and stable.”

Lake and Mendocino counties
Peter Molnar, who also owns vines in the Red Hills AVA in Lake County, reports that the buds remain completely closed at Obsidian Ridge Vineyards, while Clay Shannon in Lake County’s High Valley says that early varieties on hilltop vineyards are pushing out, but all Cabernet is still dormant. He added, “Sauvignon Blanc is starting to show leaves and looks uniform.”

In Mendocino County’s cool Anderson Valley, Kristy Charles reported that Charles Vineyard had bud break March 20. “We had five frost nights down to 28ºF that week. I hear Philo had bud break right in that same timeframe during that week too.”

In inland Mendocino County, winemaker Bob Swain of Mendocino Wine Co. reported that at the winery’s Parducci Home Ranch, Grenache and Viognier had pushed and were close to leaf stage. Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah all were at popcorn stage. Cabernet Sauvignon is not out yet but should be by next week.

At Mendocino’s La Ribera Ranch on Old River Road, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir are out at small leaf stage, while Zinfandel and Syrah are at the popcorn stage and Cabernet Sauvignon is not out yet but should be by next week.

Swain added that the timing of bud break this year is about average.

Pacific Northwest
Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem winery in the Willamette Valley of Oregon said, “In looking today, my viticulturist Chad Douglas and I agreed that we could be anywhere from a week early to on time, based on Corral Creek Vineyards at the winery and assuming moderate but not cold temperatures.”

Rick Terry, owner of Terry Family Wines in Yamhill, Ore., in the northwestern corner of Willamette Valley, said that he doesn’t have bud break yet. “Some of the warmer areas like the Dundee Hills have 10% break, but others there are just getting wooly buds. The vines in cooler areas are just swelling.”

He added that he expects bud break from now through April 11, earlier than the average of April 15.

On Red Mountain in Washington, Larry Pearson of Tapteil Vineyards said he hasn’t seen bud break yet, but he can see the sap movement in all his blocks: Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. “We expect bud break in a few weeks, which is about normal,” Pearson said.

Mimi Nye, the vineyard manager at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA reports that she expects to see bud break later this week.

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