Three weeks ago, we were seeing our earliest-ever budbreak, driven by a warm, sunny February that saw just one winter storm pass through and a total of just 1.55" of rain. Articles from around the state echoed San Francisco Chronicle's headline What if El Nino is a big bust?. Far from the promise of an El Niño that would put a measurable dent in California's historic drought, Paso Robles and points south had fallen below historical averages for winter rainfall.
Fast forward three weeks, and things look better, if perhaps not as much better as we'd like them to look. So far in March, we've seen a welcome 6.32" of rain, bringing our yearly total up to 19.33". This is already better than what we received the last four years, if only about 85% of what we'd expect by this point in an average winter. We do still have another month where we can reasonably expect rainfall, albeit usually not a huge additional amount. The chart below will give you a sense of how this year has stacked up compared to normal for us (click on it to see it bigger):
We've had three months (July, January, and March) with above-average rainfall, six months below, and three-plus still to go. With 10 days still to go in March, we're already at 150% of normal March rainfall. But while I'd like to project that forward and assume we'd get another couple of inches before the end of the month, there's nothing promising in the forecast. So, assuming we get something like average rainfall in April and May, we're likely looking at somewhere in the 22" range. That's a lot better than what we received the last four years (13"-15" each year) but still only about 85% of our 25" historical average.
That said, the vineyard looks like it's thriving. It's clear from the prevalence of water-loving native plants like miner's lettuce (photo below; more information here) even in areas that we don't normally see them that the soils are saturated.
The rain and cool weather in the first half of March delayed the spread of budbreak -- which started 10 days earlier than 2015, which had been our earliest-ever year -- by a welcome couple of weeks, so we're now more or less on par with the last two years. But things are going to be moving fast from here forward, and we're likely past the point where we could safely weather a frost even in our low-lying and late-sprouting areas.
The cover crops are still deep, green, and growing enthusiastically. With the vines (like Grenache, below) coming out of dormancy, we'll need to get them tilled under so they don't allow frosty morning air to settle next to the new sprouts:
In fact, the March rain has meant that even blocks where our animal herd spent time in January -- like the Roussanne below, with vineyard dog for scale -- have regrown so much that they'll provide a lot of additional organic matter for the soil when they're tilled under in the next few months:
The alternating sun and rain has made for what is shaping up to be a spectacular wildflower season. The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket that contrasts dramatically with the still-dormant Mourvedre vines:
And the California poppies are starting to come out. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles in the next couple of months is in for some spectacular scenery:
So, big picture, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things. We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, though not enough to materially improve the groundwater reserves. The vineyard is early by historical averages, but no longer alarmingly so. We've negotiated the first 3 weeks of what will have been an unprecedentedly long frost season successfully, though there are still 6 weeks before we feel safe.
Given where we were three weeks ago, I'll take it, gladly.