Bud break in Russian River Valley vineyard a sign of things to come

Touring a Russian River Valley vineyard southwest of Windsor in late January, Jeff Magnasco observed nothing unusual, just rows and rows of pinot noir vines still slumbering in winter dormancy.

Returning to the same location last week, Magnasco was stunned to see tiny green leaves protruding from several of the same vines. A blast of spring like temperatures in the preceding days had brought the vineyard out of hibernation.

“It’s just amazing how things took off,” Magnasco, a grower relations representative for J Vineyards and Winery, said Thursday at the vineyard off Starr Road.

The new growth portends the official start of the 2016 grape-growing season, one that is eagerly anticipated following the North Coast’s smallest harvest in four years. While it’s way too early to say how this year’s crop ultimately will shape up, the fact bud break appears to be coming on a more normal schedule than in recent years is reason for optimism.

“For the North Coast, having a normal growing season means bloom, fruit set and ripening for the most part occur when expected and without a problem,” said Rhonda Smith, the viticulture farm adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County. “If growers can harvest a crop that hits their historical averages, then 2016 will be a good year.”

Bud break begins a process that culminates with harvest in the fall. The vines, which go into a state of dormancy over winter, begin to grow again when highter temperatures warm the soil. Sap resumes flowing in the vines, roots begin to absorb nutrients and buds swell from the wood, sprouting green leaves that will soon soak up energy from the sun and begin the process of photosynthesis.

Full-bore bud break on the North Coast appears to be several days, if not more than a week away, based on reports from several growers Thursday. Lower temperatures will slow the process down, while another sustained wave of heat would speed it up.

Most growers prefer things to slow down at this point.

“Once the buds pop out, from that day forward, you’re vulnerable to frost,” said Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyard Management, which oversees about 1,000 acres of vineyards around the county. He predicted that mass-scale bud break is about 10 days away.

The earliest outbreaks occur in vineyards that have excellent soil drainage, such as those on hillsides, and ample amounts of sunlight. That’s the case with the 7.2-acre Vineyard eleven, where Magnasco on Thursday took stock of things. About 25 percent of the vineyard was showing signs of bud break.

The sloping rows of vines face southeast, putting them in the path of the morning and mid day sun. Grapes from the vineyard, which is owned by Geoffrey and Marla Bedrosian, are used for J Winery’s sparkling varietals.

In 2015, record-breaking heat on the North Coast in January and early February resulted in an early bud break that was unprecedented for many vineyards. At Paradise Ridge Winery, for example, buds started popping out in January in a pinot noir vineyard overlooking Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood.

It’s a different story this year.

“I haven’t seen anything yet,” Paradise Ridge winemaker Dan Barwick said. “I think the reason is the soil is soaked up with cold water.”

This winter, storms fueled by an El Niñ o pattern have slowed down bud break and filled up most farm ponds and reservoirs. Spring storms should bring more rain, which is not a problem unless it continues past mid-April or so, in which case the rain could interfere with the fertilization of new berries.

“I would welcome some rain in the next while, but not too much into flowering season,” said Alison Crowe, winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and director of winemaking at Plata Wine Partners.

She predicted a better crop in 2016 than last year, when the size of the North Coast crop tumbled 25 percent. The value of the crop dropped by $336 million to $1.1 billion, resulting in the smallest returns for growers since 2011.

“We’re seeing more normal activity by the vine,” Crowe said of this year’s growth patterns.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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