Yesterday, I got out in the vineyard to hunt for signs of budbreak. It has been an exceptionally warm, sunny February, with weather we'd more associate with April. And as I suspected, the vineyard had noticed. Please join me in welcoming the 2016 vintage:
Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. If you're thinking that this seems early to be talking about budbreak, you're right. We have never before seen budbreak in February. Last year, I wrote about our then-earliest-ever budbreak on March 16th (though it was maybe a week more advanced than what I saw yesterday). To give you a sense of where 2016 fits within the context of recent years, I went back to look at when we first noted budbreak each of the last eight years:
2015: Second week of March
2013: First week of April
2011: First week of April
2010: Last week of March
2009: Second week of April
2008: Last week of March
2007: First week of April
Although budbreak is still limited to Viognier (our earliest budding variety) and to the warmer tops of the hills, we know it won't be long before the other grapes join in. I expect to see Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Syrah in the next week or so, followed by Tannat, Marsanne, and Picpoul a week or two later. We likely won't see the late-budding Counoise, Roussanne, and Mourvedre until the second half of the month, and sections toward the bottoms of our hills (where cold air settles at night) maybe not for a little while after.
While budbreak is a hopeful sign, it's also the beginning of a period of increased risk. During winter dormancy, the vines are not susceptible to damage from below-freezing temperatures. Once they've pushed new growth, they are. Because we can receive frosts here in Paso Robles all the way into early May, this means we have at least two months of white-knuckle nights to get through. We've been fortunate in recent years, with our last damaging frost in 2011. It seems very unlikely, given the earliness of this year's start to the growing season, that we'll continue our run of good luck. That said, a late budbreak is no guarantee of safety, and in fact may be an indicator of increased risk, since it was likely cold weather that delayed the budbreak in the first place. Both 2011 and 2009 (our two recent frost years) saw April budbreaks, which were followed in short order by frosts that cost us something like 40% of our crop.
Looking forward, we have something of an unusual weather pattern developing. Later this week, our string of warm, dry weather will be ending, and conditions more typical of El Nino will be setting back in. This morning's agricultural forecast suggests that the jet stream will direct a series of strong, wet, not too cold storms toward California starting this coming weekend. Early predictions are that we could receive several inches of rain in the first two waves Saturday and Monday. What's more, they're using one of my favorite California weather terms to describe the long-term forecast: that the "storm door will stay wide open" through the middle of March.
As long as we're receiving these sorts of storms fueled by the relatively warm waters of the south Pacific, we're likely to be at little risk of frost. If it's enough to make a good dent in our groundwater deficit, that would be a double bonus of massive proportions, and make the sharing of photos like the ones below more joyful and less terrifying. I'm all for that.