Last winter's gloriously wet January and February feels like a lifetime ago. The 4.32" of rain that we've received so far this winter is less than 14% of last winter's (near-record) 31.92" as of February 12th. Yes, last winter was extraordinary, but we're also at just 27% of the 16.16" we'd expect to have received to date in a normal winter. National newspapers are speculating that despite relatively healthy reservoir levels in the wake of last year's snowmelt, we might be reentering drought conditions. While things are nowhere near as bad as they were in 2015 or 2016, the California Drought Monitor recently upgraded much of coastal southern California to "Severe Drought" status. And as of now, we're looking at our first totally dry February since 1952. The winter so far:
Although we're all worried about the lack of rain, there is a more pressing concern. While December 2017 was very cold, with 20 frost nights, 2018 has been much warmer. January saw only five nights drop below freezing, and until two nights ago, February had seen zero, and 10 days in a row topped out at 75°F or higher. A February 8th Wines & Vines article on very early budbreak in Ojai sent many of the Central Coast winery folks I know scurrying, asking neighbors if they'd seen any signs of the same in their necks of the woods.
So, Sunday night's chilly weather, and the forecast for a week of frosty nights, was a relief to us all.
What a relief to have a nice frosty morning here in Paso Robles after three weeks of unusually warm winter weather. pic.twitter.com/3Y5uquznVx— Tablas Creek (@TablasCreek) February 12, 2018
Why would we worry more about the unusual warmth than the unusual dryness? Well, too much more warmth and we would be looking at budbreak in February, which would be the earliest we'd ever seen. And early budbreak puts us at increased risk of damage from spring frosts, which can come as late as early May. A bad frost typically costs us something like 40% of our production. It's been a while since our last bad frost -- 2011 was our most recent, with other similarly bad ones in 2009 and 2001 -- but I'm not anxious to repeat the experience. While a dry winter does have some implications on yields, typically it's not nearly as dramatic, at least not the first year of a drought. It would be a different calculus if this winter had followed a string of dry years, but for now, our wells are in good shape and the vines strong from last year's ample winter rain.
Of course, it's not like we get to choose. And since the main determinant of budbreak is warming soil temperatures, the lack of rainfall and the warm weather both have roles to play in the timing of when the vines sprout. Wet soils hold the nighttime cold much better than dry soils do, so a good soaking in the next few weeks would have the ancillary benefit of maintaining cool soil temperatures well into March.
In any case, while we're all hoping for rain, we'll be looking forward each morning this week to seeing a frosty carpet. We'll take what we can get.