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California Winemakers Aren't Singing in the Rain

Despite last week’s rainstorm, California's vineyards are getting dry
Photo by: Tim Fish
The Merlot is budding in this Chateau St. Jean vineyard in Kenwood.

Posted: Apr 10, 2013 11:00am ET

It has been dry in California's winegrowing regions the past three months, approaching records in some areas, so the inch of rain that fell on Napa and Sonoma last week was welcome.

But it was just a drop in an empty bucket. The Santa Rosa newspaper reports that precipitation in the area from January through March was just below 4 inches, the smallest amount of rain recorded for that period in 72 years.

Paradoxically, the last six months of 2012 were some of the wettest on record. It's a typical La Niña pattern—rains like crazy early on and then it's bupkis more or less. The pattern has been similar in wine regions like the Sierra Foothills and in Santa Barbara County, where grower Peter Cargasacchi has gotten 6 inches of rain since December instead of the usual 15.

There's no reason to panic over the 2013 crop, however. Vineyards are resilient and most growers have reservoirs that allow them to ration water as they need it, but those aren't as full as they used to be.

With or without the rain, there's plenty happening in California's vineyards. The vines are in the midst of budbreak, when the first green leaves begin to appear. Some vineyards are still dormant while others have 4-inch shoots, and it all depends on the location and the grape variety. Budbreak is running a little late in some regions because of the chilly temperatures through much of this year.

Frost is a big concern right now, and when the vines begin to flower in a few weeks, rain itself can be an issue, especially if it's an extended downpour packing lots of wind. That could affect the size and set of the 2013 crop.

Meanwhile, growers will be busy mowing and disking cover crop, applying some of the first mildew treatments, finishing up the last of the pruning and tying down canes to train the vines for the coming growth.

It's a beautiful time in the vineyards, with the spring flowers blooming and the mountains glowing green from that much-needed—albeit small—shot of rain.

John Eagan
Beverly Hills  —  April 20, 2013 10:49am ET
It all starts in the vineyard! I would like to see an update on the 2011 vintage. Everything I'm hearing, it's is not good.
Janet L Hutcheson
Palo Alto, Ca. USA —  May 6, 2013 12:43pm ET
Too much rainfall is a huge problem as well......diluted sugars, insufficient ripening, burst grape skins, rot.

I think perhaps too little rain is the lesser of the two evils.

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