2016 Northern California Budbreak Begins: Girl and The Grape’s First Look
It’s hard to believe I’m talking about Harvest 2016 already. It makes sense, though, because every vintage is always just a certain number of months away from picking, no matter what time the year. Indeed, every season of the year, and the weather conditions therein, ultimately decide the size and quality of grape crop we have and the kind of wine we will make.
I wasn’t the first one to bring up Harvest 2016; I had my head stuck in a bottling line, putting the cork in my first Garnet Vineyards Stanly Ranch single vineyard Pinot Noir when I fielded a call from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Their reporter told me he had just been talking to someone who had active budbreak showing at 25% in the Russian River. He wanted to know what I was seeing in our vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros.
As I stood outside Garnet Vineyards’ winery off of 8th St. East in Sonoma, sheltering from gusty bouts of a rare February drizzle, I laughed and said, “Not much.” The only active green growth I’d been enjoying in my vineyards was this year’s ample, well-watered cover crops. January’s rainfall and February’s recent three-week warm spell really got the mustard going and from Rutherford to Carneros, the Napa Valley has been one beautiful carpet of yellow and green lushness.
Not that I haven’t heard rumors of the odd teeny leaf peeping out here and there. One of my co-workers had just emailed around a fuzzy bud of Chardonnay (one of the earlier-ripening varieties) which looked like a pale green cotton ball about to unfurl into a tender leaf. But 25%? I wasn’t buying it last week and after touring through the Pinot Noir (always my first starter) in the Petaluma Gap and Carneros AVA’s this weekend I’m still not buying 25% in the active bud break/leafing stage. You can find a few pushing buds here and there in the very warmest areas, in pockets, but it’s not widespread…yet.
It’s about to get crazy, however, because we’ve got at least another week of mild weather with highs in the mid-70’s here in Napa coming up. There’s no rain on the horizon for at least another ten days. If the leaves get all warm and fuzzy and fat and happy and then a cold snap burns developing buds or a big rainstorm reduces flower fertility during an unseasonably early bloom, it could spell trouble for the 2016 grape crop. However, a colder January than we experienced in 2015 is keeping budbreak more on the normal side for most vineyards as far as I can tell.
Everyone is in agreement that California needs more water (especially our parched neighbors on the Central Coast) but as a “drought year” like 2015 showed us, it all depends on when we get it. I would welcome it after bud break and before bloom- and maybe with a little luck on our side we’ll have a “Miracle March” to help pull us away from drought conditions. So far it seems, from our initial bud analysis, that crop yield is at least starting in a “normal” place. What we end up taking off the vine, in quality as well as quantity, depends on how much frost we get during the next month and how much disruption storms bring during the bloom and set season. We are in early days yet, everyone. Cross your fingers for another nice Napa and Sonoma County harvest.
Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker (Vindie Wines, Back From the Dead Red Wine), author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book, and is at the helm of Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards.