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North Coast grape growers ramp up for new growing season as bud break arrives

Another grape season has begun across the North Coast as warm spring weather has awakened buds on vines across the nation’s premium wine region.

With that rite comes another set of challenges for grape growers, who’ve battled through drought and wildfires in recent years while harvesting smaller yields in the past two seasons.

Last year’s crop fetched a cash value of $1.4 billion combined for the counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin.

The hurdles so far this year include a February frost that came at a time some buds were already exposed because of mild weather, which made them susceptible to damage.

And then there is the drought — and a widening consensus among growers the lack of rainfall is likely to result in another lighter harvest come August, when picking begins for sparkling wine and continues into early November, depending on weather conditions.

This year’s crop, according to that thinking, may again less than the historical average, which over the past 10 years is 477,327 tons crushed for the five-county region, known as the nation’s premier growing spot.

“The feeling in the industry by wineries and growers is that with this drought condition, we are not going to make up the difference,” said Christian Klier, a grape broker with Turrentine Brokerage in Novato, of expectations of another lighter harvest.

Bud break started almost two weeks ago for chardonnay vines for Munselle Vineyards, which has 300 acres in the Alexander Valley. The timing is near historical norms for past years and the warm weather this week, including record heat Tuesday, has spurred bud break in other varieties including red grapes, said Bret Munselle, a fifth-generation farmer of his family’s business.

The major concern, he said, is getting more rain this spring to help replenish soil moisture within the vineyard property and its reservoirs, which were depleted last year by the drought.

“It could rain all the month of April and I would be happy,” Munselle said.

Just over an inch of rain has been recorded at the Sonoma County Airport this year, about 7% of normal for what is typically the region’s wettest months. Heavy storms in October and December put in a dent in the rainfall deficit, but the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map placed the county and North Coast in a state of extreme drought, the second highest category.

Last year, the crisis forced some growers to let their vineyards go fallow and not be harvested.

Hundreds of grape growers reliant on water from the upper Russian River and its tributaries saw their water rights curtailed in an unprecedented series of steps by North Coast water regulators.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s April 2021 visit to dry bed of Lake Mendocino, where he proclaimed a state of emergency, spotlighted Wine Country as one of the most deeply affected regions of the now-three year drought.

Even relatively cooler parts of the region, such the Petaluma Gap, have seen their growing prospects diminished by the drought. At Griffin's Lair Vineyard, none of the syrah fruit was picked last year.

“No one has seen any cluster counts this year and has made any counts, but the growers sense in the industry in the North Coast is due to the drought that this could be another short crop,” Klier said.

Earlier this week, vineyards along the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys had soil that was visibly dried out, with cover crops already mowed, giving way to brown stripes between the vines, said retired industry veteran George Rose in an email after driving around the area.

Water is also a concern during the spring for frost protection. Growers rely on wind machines as well as overhead sprinklers that coat the vines in ice, which can keep the delicate buds at a constant 32 degrees and prevent damage. But water used for frost protection during the spring isn’t available for irrigation later in the year.

That scenario came into play during a cold spike in late February, when subfreezing temperatures struck at the same time some buds were emerging as a result of warm weather at the beginning of the year. At Balletto Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, temperatures got as low as 25 degrees just as some chardonnay fruit was coming out, said John Balletto, founder and owner.

“We really have to wait another couple of weeks before we can evaluate that. We are very concerned,” Balletto said. He has about 700 vineyard acres in on the valley floor and another 150 acres on the Sebastopol Hills. Balletto uses both wind machines and sprinklers for frost protection.

Balletto has had wineries reach out to him to lock in contracts to buy more fruit, but he wants to know more about the extent of any damage to the chardonnay fruit to ensure that he has necessary grapes to sell.

“We just have to wait and see,” he said.

Pam Bacigalupi of Bacigalupi Vineyards in Healdsburg said some chardonnay vines on her family’s vineyard property were exposed during the freezing spell. She sounded a hopeful note this week.

“Those grape vines seem to be coming back,” Bacigalupi said. “There’s definitely some good growth on them.”

A smaller crop again this year is not necessarily bad news for growers because it would serve to help rebalance the North Coast grape market.

In previous years, farmers faced a glut of supply in the market with a record crop of 588,889 tons in 2018 and another big yield in 2019. Wineries as a result did not need as much fruit in the following years given their sales projections and didn’t renew contracts with some growers.

“We would call this a supply-driven market,” Klier said of projections for this year of more wineries looking to buy grapes compared to the past two years.

Mendocino County grape grower Mike Boer said he knows firsthand how fickle the market can be. He farms 86 acres in the Ukiah Valley, about half of it in chardonnay and the rest in cabernet sauvignon and merlot. He expects more contracts will be signed just before summer after the final cluster counts are established for the harvest.

“There have been lookers … but not buyers that I am aware of,” Boer said of current market activity.

The last few harvests, Boer has used his own chardonnay to make bulk wine that can be later sold to wineries as a finished product. He chose that route in 2020 because the prices that he was offered for his grapes near harvest were too low for his preferences.

Boer said he has “done well” by making wine himself and later selling it to wineries on an as-needed basis. But he knows that can quickly change.

“As soon as we have one big crop, that party is going to be over,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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