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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.

Smith said some larger winery companies in the county have reworked their trellis systems to have machines do all their pruning as well as other seasonal activities such as leafing and harvesting the grapes. The drive toward mechanization is expected to increase in the North Coast in coming years.

But not all agree that machines can do the job as well as humans, especially the final cuts to vines, which determine how the fruit will hang come summer.

“It’s still a form of art,” Young said. “It’s like crafting a fine wine, but we are crafting it in the field.”

The flooded vineyards, photos of which have raced around social media such as Instagram and Facebook, will not do much damage to the grapevines. The dormant vines can tolerate standing water for as long as 20 days, Crowe said. In fact, the French once used flooding to control the phylloxera root pest.

The rain will provide moisture to the soil that will likely push back by a month or more the need to irrigate. It also allows wineries to fill up their reservoirs.

“It’s the best thing to have,” Crowe said. “If there is extra runoff, then there is extra runoff.”

Crowe noted that some of her vineyards in the Russian River Valley on Thursday held from 6 inches to a foot of standing water. But that was expected to dissipate with the help of cover crops planted between the vines, which soak up the rainfall.

“I know they can go down really quickly,” she said, unconcerned. “If this (downpours) happens every week, then I may have a different opinion.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.