News from the Vineyard (May Shrub Report)

It’s cold in the vineyards this Spring.  Does that make us Germany?

If you think about it, you never see Zinfandels from Germany in stores.  Come to think about it, you don’t see great Zins from Bordeaux either.  Well, the spring of 2010 may just end up giving us a clue as to why warm climate varieties aren’t grown in regions with cool, short growing seasons.

April and May of 2010 have been  the coolest I think I have ever experienced in the vineyards.  Frost warnings, lost crop, all night-temperature vigils, snow, hail and almost continual rain has dealt us a hand that I wouldn’t necessarily bet on.

The vines are three weeks or more behind in their growth cycle, and it’s already the end of May.   As farmers, we watch for certain physiological changes in the grapevine—budbreak (mid-April), flower (early-June), veraison (when the grapes soften and change color—early-August), and finally harvest (mid-September to mid-October).  That’s for a normal year.

However, if you do the math and we have an average year from now on, we won’t be harvesting Zinfandel perhaps until early November.  And at that point, the sun is so low in the sky, the temperatures get cooler and the days get so short that not much growing happens at all.  And that’s assuming we have growth in the vineyard right now.

Where the frost burned some of our Zinfandel in the coolest area in the Enyé Vineyards (Pleasant Valley), it may take one to two weeks for the vines to push another bud (and that’s if the weather is nice!).  That means we’ll be starting the process in mid-June instead of mid-April.  Ironically, the vine takes these frost issues into consideration by only having a small percentage of the original crop on the second bud.  We’re lucky with Zinfandel, it could be as much as 30% of the original crop (versus Chardonnay at 10%, etc.).  The thought is (if I may be so bold as to speak for the vine), a smaller crop ripens faster and may just be sweet enough by the fall for the critters to eat (and spread the seeds).

But from the farmer point of view, we get only a portion of a full crop, yet we have to treat the vineyard still as if it had the full crop (i.e.  we still have to put on the same sulfur sprays to prevent mildew, etc.).  And to add just a little salt to the wound, vines using  the secondary or tertiary (third) buds take far more handwork to get a quality product.  So, more time and more money with only a portion of a normal crop. It isn’t a business plan for the long term, but you have to do what you have to do.

With all this said, we’ve only lost 10 tons or so of grapes this year out of the 230 tons coming from the Estate, Enyé and Sumu Kaw Vineyards.  That’s assuming, of course, everything else ripens in time.  Thus we may find that our cool spring has given us a European climate for the year, with all the challenges and the high acid wines in the end.  Or we may find that 2010, because of its challenges, makes the most exquisite wines of the decade.  It will take a lot of work in the vineyard this year, but my optimistic side leans toward the latter with an epiphany that we are not Germany.

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