I just got back from spending the weekend in San Francisco, host to the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting and its two days of seminars, trade and consumer tastings, and fifteen-winery winemaker dinner. The events were great... well attended despite the economy, with a great vibe to them all. Those of you who are fans of Rhone varietals in California (and, if you aren't, why are you reading this blog?) should sign up for the free Rhone Rangers Sidekick program, which gets you information about and discounts on Rhone Rangers events.
While I was gone, a cold winter storm accelerated through Paso Robles, bringing about a half-inch of rain to the vineyard and a cold, blustery day today to all of California. Snow levels in the Santa Lucia Mountains dropped to 2500 feet or so during the storm, and I had a pretty drive back from San Francisco this afternoon with snowcapped peaks to my right and the lush green of spring growth in the pasturelands and foothills below.
Closer to home, we're expecting a hard freeze tonight. The weather feels distinctly different than it has the last couple of weeks, when we saw warm days in the upper 70s and relatively balmy nights. In those two weeks, we've traded the kids' sweatshirts for sunscreen and broad-brimmed hats (anyone with a good idea of how to keep a hat on an uncooperative 18-month-old, please share). I've had my first t-shirt work day of the year. And the fruit and nut trees in Paso Robles have burst into flower. On my drive down to Los Angeles last week, I passed an orchard on CA-46 somewhere in the Central Valley where the blossoms were so thick on the ground that it looked like a very localized snowstorm had passed over that plot.
More relevantly, the grapevines in our back yard (in the town of Paso Robles) sprouted last week. Our backyard Thompson's Seedless are usually about 3 weeks ahead of the vineyard's earliest vines, but it's a clear indication that the clock is ticking. Another indication is that the pruning cuts on the vines in pots outside our tasting room are dripping sap. That usually precedes budbreak by about a week.
Looking at the long-term forecast, it looks like this cold front was an isolated event, rather than a resumption of a more winterish weather pattern. High pressure is supposed to rebuild over the course of this week, with temperatures forecast to push into the 80s by next weekend. No more rain is in sight. After tomorrow night, the lows aren't supposed to threaten frost, at least for a couple of weeks.
All this is a long way of saying that what we've seen the past few days feels like the last little gasp of winter, with spring definitively on its way. And that means that we're likely to see bud break before our next bout of cold weather.
Assessing this winter, it will end up being our third year of drought. We had a wet February, but not wet enough to make up for a very dry January. March has been mostly dry. And we haven't had the big storms that we typically receive in the winter. We've had lots of days of quarter-inch to half-inch rainfall, but no days with more than two inches. Our total rainfall for the rainy season is about 14.5 inches, which is just over half of normal.
The broad distribution of the rainfall has meant that the rain has all been able to be absorbed into the topsoil and very little has run off. The vineyard cover crop is gorgeous and lush, but Tablas Creek is still dry, and hasn't run at all this winter. We know that we'll see pressures on our well, as everyone in the area is already starting to think about irrigating.
There's still a decent likelihood that we'll get another dose or two of rain before the end of April, but I'm not holding my breath. And if we do, it will likely be accompanied by the serious frost threat that typically follows the passage of a cold front, making it a mixed blessing.
So, we make the transition from wishing it will be cold and wet to wishing it will be warm and dry. Keep your fingers crossed for us.