Cutworms and Botrytis

Apr 20, 2006

“It’s gonna be a great year for cutworms and botrytis,” my friend C.J., a Rutherford-based vineyard manager said, tongue in cheek.

And that was last week, before it rained again over the weekend.

The damp, wet weather that has been soaking much of California for weeks is hardly a natural disaster.

Still, it’s our weather, and it’s all we’ve had to talk about now for weeks on end.

This year the rain storms came and stayed, setting the stage for what promises to be a challenging viticultural year in Napa, Sonoma and other wine regions.

What’s eerie about this spring, so far, is how much it reminds winegrowers of 1998 and 2000, the two coolest, dampest years in the past 15.

This much we know so far.

The growing season is about a month behind schedule. Vines that might have been picked by Labor Day may still have grapes hanging into October. And those vines that might have been picked in early October are looking for a date with Halloween.

Or, as Scott Snowden, of Snowden Vineyards, joked yesterday: How about a Thanksgiving harvest?

We know it’s going to be an expensive year for farming. It may be another week or more before farmers can get their tractors and heavy equipment into the vineyards. Weeds are already waist-high in many vineyards.

Insects, of course, will have a field day. “We won’t know how much damage the cutworms have caused until we get into the vineyards,” said CJ, “but we know they’ll be chomping away on the tender shoots.”

Botrytis, the noble rot, also flourishes in damp weather. Those who make late-harvest wines in the fall welcome the onset of botrytis. But it’s not something vintners like to combat in the spring.

One other concern in the next few weeks is a frost.

Last week, as I toured Blankiet Estate with winemaker Helen Turley, she pointed out that a frost in the next few weeks would be devastating to the vines.

Just how the wet spring factors into wine quality is months away. But it’s definitely shaped the start of vintage 2006.

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