At the end of February, we were looking at a potentially disastrous winter, with less than five inches of precipitation. A major storm that arrived March 1st and dropped more than three inches of rain in 24 hours marked a major pattern shift, and the rest of March continued wet, finishing with nearly 12 inches of rain, our wettest March since we put in our weather station in 1996 and the sixth-wettest month in that time frame. Although April was dry, we're in a much better place than it looked like we'd be. For a visual sense of how the winter has shaped up compared to normal, I've put together a graph by month:
You can see what an outlier March is, at 295% of normal. Still, following six drier-than-n0rmal winter months, we will end this winter season at something like 70% of average, a total much more like what we saw during our 2012-2016 drought than the gloriously wet 2016-2017 winter:
Still, while it was a below-average rainfall winter, it's neither particularly troubling nor particularly unusual. It ranks 13th of the 22 winters since 1996. And it follows our very wet winter last year, which produced healthy vines and replenished our underground water sources. Historically, the first dry year after a wet stretch hasn't been particularly hard on the vineyard, thanks to the accumulated vigor and residual moisture, and has in fact produced some fabulous vintages like 1999, 2002, 2007, and 2012.
It's also important to realize that the fact that the rain came late will have an impact on the growing season. It's unusually green right now for mid-May, and that soil moisture is relatively plentiful close to the surface, easily accessible even to relatively young grapevines. A few shots should give you a sense of what things look like. First, one from mid-April, before the Mourvedre vines in this low-lying area had sprouted:
Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:
Because the rain came so late and we wanted to give the cover crops as much time as possible to build organic matter, we're behind in getting them tilled under. The vineyard at my parents' house is a good example; the cover crops are nearly as high as the cordons:
The other implication of the late beginning of cover crop growth is that we weren't able to have the animals in the vineyard as much as we would have liked this winter, because there just wasn't enough for them to eat until the beginning of March. But we're planning to harvest the cover crops in sections of the vineyard where we weren't able to have them graze, to supplement their forage from unplanted portions of the property.
The late rain and the consistent sun in April has made for a spectacular wildflower season. The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket nearly covering the head-trained Grenache vines:
And, of course, the California poppies are the stars of the show. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles this month is in for some spectacular scenery:
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, and in a concentrated enough period to have positively impacted our well levels. Budbreak was later than in recent years, and we're now largely through the frost season, with only one frost event (the morning of April 17th), which doesn't look like it did too much damage. The vineyard looks healthy.
Given where we were in mid-February, I don't think we could have asked for anything more.