While the heavy rains that have swamped the North Coast this month have brought drought relief to the local wine industry, the deluge has put work crews weeks behind on critical pruning that must be done before late-winter bud break.
At Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Healdsburg, ranch manager and viticulturist Brent Young said he got a crew out by late morning Thursday once the rains subsided. He estimated that vine pruning was probably a week behind on the land he oversees in the Alexander Valley.
The work is crucial to the Sonoma County grape crop, which at $447 million in 2015 was the most profitable crop in the county.
Bud break, which begins the grape-growing season, varies around the county, depending on such factors as varietal, soil and microclimate.
“It kind of lays the foundation and the tempo for the growing season,” young said of the process.
The Carneros region typically breaks first, in late February, said Rhonda Smith, the viticulture farm adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County.
“The later that people prune, the more delay there will be in bud break,” Smith said.
Decisions on pruning give winemakers some control over when they will ultimately pick the crop, including how long the grapes get to ripen in late summer. Mother Nature, though, will always have the last word.
Young said bud break on his vines can start as early as the third week in March and sometimes go as late as the first week in April, Young said.
Workers were hustling Thursday to make up for lost time in a soggy hillside vineyard near Healdsburg’s Dry Creek General Store. Nicolas Cornejo, owner of Clendenen Vineyard Management company, had a work crew of eight men pruning cabernet sauvignon vines and estimated he is almost two weeks behind on the 600 acres that he oversees. But he believes he can catch up provided clear skies in the forecast.
“It was kind of wet ... slippery for sure,” Cornejo said.
There is some additional concern among vineyard managers that continued heavy rains could lead to erosion in the vineyards or trees falling on the grapevines, according to Alison Crowe, winemaker at Plata Wine Partners, of Napa, which farms in both Sonoma and Napa counties.
Santa Rosa has received a total of 33.6 inches of rain already for this rain year, which still has eight months remaining, according to the National Weather Service. That’s 178 percent of normal for this time of year.
Vineyard managers in recent years have increasingly begun pruning dormant vines as early as November, in part because of the scarcity of vineyard workers, who may not be available come January and February. By pruning early, they can employ workers who have just weeks earlier finished with the grape harvest.
But early pruning can leave the vines more susceptible to infections, such as trunk disease, carried by spores through the air, Smith said.
“It’s a balancing act,” she said.
Also in good part because of the labor shortage, vineyard managers have turned to machines for pruning — especially “pre-pruning,” where a machine lops off the dead-wood tops of the vines like a barber giving buzz cuts to enlisted soldiers.
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