Viticulture is a labor of love and one that is sustained by the providence of nature. While the majority of the Northern hemisphere experienced severe weather with some places breaking records in terms of temperature and snow fall here in California we have had a mild, dry & warm beginning of 2014. On the surface these weather conditions are very nice and purely from a human standpoint incredibly enjoyable. Our guests during the low season of wine tours have replaced the coziness of cave tastings with lovely outdoor verandas full of sunshine. But there is more to the weather than purely human enjoyment. For those caring for the vines unseasonal and early warmth paired with lack of rain has heralded an early “bud break”.
What is a Bud break?
The makings of a great wine are like a great choreography of nature and men where everything must happen at just the right time. Bud break is the sprouting period of the first new leaves on the vine. During the winter the buds of the vine are dormant, desiccated and isolated from the vascular system of the plant; additionally compounds that impede freezing surround them. The vine patiently waits for signals from nature to reactivate the xylem & the phloem which makeup the vascular system by providing the plant with both water and nutrients. The signals that alert the vine that it is time to bud are warmth & humidity. During dormancy a water-resistant layer called periderm or cork layer protects plants. Nature has graciously equipped the vine with systems that ensure it will not bud break in early winter even when warm conditions exist. The vine needs a certain amount of time with temperatures under 40 degrees in order to prime the bud for breaking. While this is a wonderful safeguard in early winter as late winter and early spring arrive viticulturists face the concern of an early bud break. If temperatures and humidity become too high, the vine runs the risk of deacclimation presenting a real threat to the potential of the growing season. The threat comes in the form of frosty mornings. If the temperatures fall below 32 degrees the buds will be suffer frostbite and it could potentially impact the growth of the vines for the following two vintages. Napa wine producers and vineyard managers are on alert and standing by monitoring temperatures and ready to take measures with frost fans and overhead irrigation should they need to take action as temperatures drop. All eyes are on our vines during this very exciting season that will define the quantity and quality of the vintages of the years to follow. It is a thing to behold to see the efforts and love placed by wine producers as they take emergency measures to mitigate the risks associated with freeze. Giant wind fans pull warm air down and push cold air out in hopes of keeping the vineyard warm enough until the sun rises. For a more romantic and glamorized version of the vineyard fans vintage style take a moment to watch A Walk in The Clouds, this movie would pair well with a lovely date and a glass of Pinot Noir from Donum Estate Wines.
The California Drought
To compound the dilemma of early bud break Napa Valley due to unusually early warm weather we are also facing what could be one of the driest seasons ever. Some vineyard managers report that this season has been the driest they have seen since 1976-77. Napa normally receives about 30 inches of rainfall. This year the predictions point to about 8 inches of rain. Surface reservoirs are nearly empty but thankfully many wine producing appellations are fortunate to sit on top of below ground-level aquifers that may just be the ticket to a great 2014 Napa Valley growing season. When the going gets tough Napa Valley producers resort to both technology and ingenuity to integrate smart irrigation programs aimed at maximizing efficiency in water utilization. A great example of technological integration of water measurement systems can be seeing at Porter Family Vineyards where sensors carefully measure humidity providing invaluable data to make decisions about irrigation.
We don’t know yet what this growing season will bring, but we do hope it brings you to beautiful Napa Valley. We want the opportunity to share with you the most exclusive tasting rooms and handpicked wineries aimed at satisfying the most educated of palates. Meanwhile, let us encourage you to save water and support Napa wine makers by drinking more wine.