This week, fresh on the heels of the wonderful storms that blew through last weekend, headlines from around California have made a quick about-face to resume talking about what has been so far a warm, dry 2015 overall. The LA Times warned of powerful winds and record high temperatures for February. Our local San Luis Obispo Tribune said Record heat forecast in SLO County after weekend storm. Inside Bay Area reported Rains give way to heat wave. Industry voice Wines & Vines reported that thanks to our continued warmth, California vineyards have been reporting early budbreak.
And yet, with reported temperatures in the 80s around California, our highs here the last few days have topped out in the low-60s. The local temperature map from Weather Underground from this afternoon illustrates (click to enlarge):
Notice the gradient: 80 in Santa Maria. 79 in San Luis Obispo. 77 in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains just south of Monterey. Heck, it's 73 in Cambria, just over the mountains from us. But Paso Robles is just 64 degrees. This pattern -- warm on the coasts and the inland areas open to the Pacific, but cooler in more inland climates like ours -- is normal in the winter, and often overlooked when people discuss the climate here.
This difference, already dramatic enough in the afternoon, is even more pronounced in the nights and early mornings. We typically see 20-30 frost nights a year here in Paso, while San Luis Obispo sees only a few. Here, you see apples, grapes, and other crops that benefit from full dormancy planted, while when you go over the mountains to the coast, you see citrus and avocado groves. It's routine for me to get up into foggy, low-40's winter mornings and drive down to San Luis, where it's in the 60's and sunny.
Why does all this matter for us? Because the beginning of the grape growing season is determined by the accumulated heat during the winter. Last year, after a warm start to 2014, regions in more moderated climates (think Edna Valley, or the Santa Lucia Highlands) saw an exceptionally early start to their growing season. This led to a growing cycle that began in February, with veraison in June and harvests that began, in some cases, in July. Yes, our early 2014 was warm compared to normal, but we didn't see anything like this. From last year's post Veraison in June? Not so fast, in Paso Robles at least:
How close were we to a similarly early start? I'd point to the nights of February 4th and 5th, both of which got down to 29 degrees here. That doesn't sound like much, but it meant that even with the warm weather that followed, our budbreak didn't start until mid-March. The more coastal regions didn't get a frost after December, and I remember driving through the Santa Maria Valley in the second half of February and marveling that their vines were already showing green.
If you needed more evidence, our winter cool is just another way in which Paso has cool climate aspects as well as warm. It's warm, in summer (but cold in the winter). It's hot, during the day (but cold at night). It's exactly this dichotomy that we loved when we settled here: this balance between the elements that bring sweet fruit and rich texture (the California sun, our warm days, and our long growing season) and those that maintain our savory notes and our freshness (the cold nights and winters, and our altitude).
Just when you think you have Paso Robles pigeonholed, it offers something new. Plan your next trip for winter, if you don't believe me.