Things are getting busy in the vineyards of California right now. Vines are blooming in all but the coolest regions of the state. Those little flowers will turn into tiny grapes before you know it.
The growing season this year has been unusual. 2013 was the driest year on record in California and by January of this year it looked bleak.
The rain finally arrived in Northern California in mid-February and continued off and on since, but most regions are still well behind. Central California remains more parched.
I checked with a few winemakers and growers for the latest in the vineyards. The season is running early throughout the state, generally two weeks earlier than normal, but in some areas it's more than that. Which means that unless summer sends a weather curve ball, it will be another early harvest like 2013.
As for the drought, Northern California can squeak by, but Central Coast areas like Santa Barbara and Paso Robles are truly dry. That could change in October when some weather models predict the onset of an El Niño rainy season.
Here are quick snapshots from specific winemakers and growers in select regions, just to give you some idea of what's happening.
Napa Valley: At The Hess Collection's Su'skol vineyard in southern Napa Valley, bloom is nearly done, while its vineyards on Mount Veeder just started flowering Chardonnay; the Cabernet Sauvignon is expected to start flowering next week. That's about three weeks earlier than normal. "At this rate we should expect veraison, [when grapes begin to ripen, turn softer and change color], to start by mid-July," said Dave Guffy, Hess' senior VP of winemaking and viticulture. "Odds are in our favor for a Labor Day weekend at the winery."
Sonoma County: The season is about 10 days ahead for Benziger Family Winery. Bloom is well underway in the Chardonnay vineyards of Sonoma Valley but is only about 5 percent along in its cool Pinot vineyards in west Sonoma County. Jeff McBride, Benziger's VP of winemaking, expects harvest to begin around the third week of August. "The year is setting up to be one of daily changes, constant vigilance and hoping to find some historical consistencies to plan to," he said.
Bloom has just begun in the benchland Zinfandel vineyards at Ridge Vineyards' Lytton property in Dry Creek Valley. David Gates, who heads the vineyard operations for Ridge, is still hoping for another 2 or 3 inches of rain. "I worry that the vines will run out of water late in the season and crash," Gates said.
Santa Cruz Mountains: The season is running a few weeks later then usual on Ridge's mountaintop Monte Bello Vineyard. While Chardonnay has just begun flowering, Gates doesn't expect Cabernet or other reds to bloom before the middle of May.
Santa Lucia Highlands: This mountainous region in Monterey County is running earliest of all. Siduri winemaker Adam Lee said the season is "historically early for us." Grower Gary Franscioni agreed: "I could see us almost all done harvesting in September." It all depends on what summer brings. A typically cool summer, winemaker Jeff Pisoni said, "can be great for [flavor] development. It would be challenging if California were to get a serious heat event."
Paso Robles: This region is hurting for water. "I believe that the Benito Dusi has received less than 4 inches of rainfall this season," Gates said of Ridge's prized Zinfandel vineyard. If the dry conditions continue, it means a smaller crop and overly stressed vines.
Santa Barbara County: Pinot Noir in most of grower Peter Cargasacchi's vineyard are ahead by 30 days—a full month. That's because of the extremely dry and warm season so far. "We normally harvest Pinot starting in the second week of October," Cargasacchi said. "At this rate we could be picking in the middle of September."