At first glance, things in Northern California wine country are sleepy right now, but there's more going on than it seems.
Budbreak—when the first green leaves appear on the vines—started in early April. Temperatures in recent weeks have been generally in the mid-60s to low-70s, which is average or slightly below, and there has been plenty of sun, but the season is running a little behind normal. Bloom—when the tiny flowers open on the vines—should start in about three weeks or so.
Bloom is one of the most crucial times in winemaking. If there's too much rain or wind, for example, the flowers will be damaged and pollination suffers. The size of the crop could be stunted and the grape bunches may grow unevenly, a problem growers and winemakers call shatter.
I've seen more workers in the vineyards in recent days. They could be doing any number of things. The first round of fungicides is being applied and irrigation systems need to be mended after a long winter. They may be busy "suckering," which is an old grower's term for removing unwanted growth. The new shoots may be growing in the wrong place or a vine may be producing too many shoots, which means too many grapes, which means lower quality.
You won't find a lot of winemakers around Napa or Sonoma this time of year. There's not a lot going on in the winery right now. In April and early May, winemakers typically hit the road to promote their wines, traveling to cities where they have key accounts, whether it's a sommelier, retailer or wholesaler. The days are long and in the evening they often go to winemaker dinners late into the night. The trips can last a week or two, and if you ask, most winemakers will tell you it's the least favorite part of their job, especially if they've been in the business a long time.
What makes being on the road even worse is how beautiful Northern California is mid-spring. The mountains are an effervescent green and wild flowers are scattered through the vineyards and the last of the fruit trees are flowering white and pink. Winter was disturbingly dry and just as we were ready to cry "drought," March swamped us with near-record rain. We all but caught up with our average annual rainfall.
I'll be keeping a close eye on the vineyards in Northern California this season and will periodically report back. Growers and winemakers here are past due for a nice, long and uneventful vintage. Maybe 2012 will be it.
John Jorgenson — Seattle, — May 4, 2012 10:58pm ET
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