The vineyards in Sonoma County are reawakening from their winter slumber this week, as grape vines that turned brown and dry after the fall harvest are beginning to sprout with green.
The annual ritual of spring in Wine Country, known as bud break, signals the start of the 2012 grape growing season.
“The vintage is about to begin,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
Invigorated by a spate of warm, sunny days, tiny buds are slowly emerging on the vines. Within a few days, they will unfurl bundles of tightly-packed leaves, beginning a six-month growing season that will culminate with the frenzy of the fall harvest.
The buds are breaking a few days earlier than normal, growers said. Farmers in regions with moderate temperatures, like Carneros, are beginning to see the first impact of warm winter temperatures.
“We just started pruning our vines across our 250 acres here, and the sap was running like water,” said George Rose, spokesman for J Vineyards and Winery outside Healdsburg.
“These vines have come alive,” he said. “We're off to the races. And this is unbelievably good weather for grape to grow in.”
But the nights are still cool, and the changing hues in the vineyard also mark the beginning of a tense period in Wine Country as growers prepare to battle frost.
When temperatures dip below freezing it can damage the tender green shoots and reduce the size of the grape crop, costing North Coast growers millions of dollars.
“The biggest problem with the early bud break is they're more susceptible to frost damage,” said Andrew Avellar, president of Carneros Vineyard Management. “If we're already pushing here in early March, it makes for a very long frost season where we have to be on guard.”
The early bud break follows a February that was so dry it broke records. Last week, the Sonoma County Water Agency declared this a “critically dry” year, a designation that could lead to significantly lower flows on the Russian River. Though water levels in reservoirs are in fair condition, the agency encouraged efficient water use.