Viticulture and Rain- An Intriguing Dialogue in California

It’s all about the rain!

After recent downpours, I had assumed there’d be an abundance of fruit and vegetables in California. I live in New York now and was sure the torrents of rain had solved all the problems created by years of drought in California.

But my daughter Daniela, who lives in San Francisco, set me straight.

Those rainstorms, Daniela explained, had created a whole new set of problems. The heavy downpour and flash floods seriously disrupted the state’s agricultural cycles. Her weekly Farmer’s Market Community Supported Agriculture box started later than usual. The peas, for example, were four weeks late. Even her Tri-tip vendor was delayed– the cattle had less to eat because of the rain and took far longer to fatten up.

My recent visit to Laetitia and Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyards confirmed Daniela’s words. I saw just how much “it’s all about the rain.”

Grapes Hiding Under Dense Canopy at SBHV

We first drove up to Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, which is at 3,200-feet elevation in the Cuyama Valley. These vines had escaped the May torrent. We saw a great many bunches of green grapes in their lag phase— when the berries are about half their final weight, bouncy, and spongy to the touch. They were a light olive green color and sour to the point of making you grimace—it’s always hard to resist tasting, even though you know they’re not yet ripe.

We were energized by the abundance we saw on the vines and by the sun beating down on the leafy green canopy which Lino made sure to cultivate. At this high elevation, you need a canopy to protect growing grapes from the intense solar radiation. Our canopy covers the berries like a hat, providing necessary shade so there is less risk of sun damage.

This year the Grenache is our most prolific varietal, with high yields. We sell some of this crop and also use it to make our summer favorite, the Grenache Rosé.

The story at Laetitia– which is on the Central Coast– was unfortunately, very different. The late May rains have caused shatter (meaning disintegration) of the berries.

Pinot Noir grapes are notoriously sensitive to weather. Yet I had assumed that all would be fine, since the recent downpour (temporarily) ended the drought that our vines have suffered through over the past few years. Our grapes, however, were not so quick to adjust. The most serious problem was that rains came after bud break — which caused shatter to many berries.

The small delicate bunches had not yet reached the lag phase. They may have been as much as three weeks off because of the unseasonably cool weather. Véraison (when the grapes turn color and really ripen) was likely about 5 weeks away.

Smaller Bunches of Grapes & Open Canopy at Laetitia

There is nothing to do but accept that yields are down this year. What we’re looking for now is a crop that is flavorful, balanced, and creates delicious wines. Lino wasn’t worried when I checked in with him last week. We may not produce as much Pinot Noir but it will certainly be good.

So onward to harvest 2017!

À votre santé

Nadia

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