1st signs of new growth pop up across few Sonoma County vineyards

Select sites in Sonoma County have seen the first inkling of budbreak, kicking off the 2023 growing season|

After a winter of immense rains, flooded vineyards, delayed pruning and colder than average temperatures, budbreak has quietly tiptoed into select areas of Sonoma County.

While much of the county’s grapevines remain at “the popcorn stage” — a term coined for the swelling, fuzzy white buds that signal budbreak — there are a few sites where the bright green shoots of this year’s vintage are starting to push through.

At Balletto Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, owner John Balletto says about 3% to 5% of his vineyards are seeing budbreak, including BCD Vineyard and Occidental Road Vineyard west of Santa Rosa, as well as at Cider Ridge Vineyard southwest of Sebastopol.

“Right now, budbreak is just getting started, but with this 70-degree weather it will speed things up,” Balletto said. “It’s crazy, though, because we’re still online for frost protection and we currently have 50 acres of vines under water. Fortunately, the water is receding quickly.”

Jim Pratt, a veteran grape grower and owner of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard, which manages 350 vineyard acres in Sonoma County, hasn’t observed any budbreak just yet. Neither has Riggs Lokka, assistant vineyard manager at Emeritus Vineyards, who farms nearly 150 acres in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast.

“This is actually more of a normal year in terms of timing,” Pratt said. “I expect it will happen closer to April 1 — just like the old days.”

Last year, a hot-spell in January led to early budbreak in February, followed by a damaging frost. That resulted in lower grape yields across the region for the 2022 harvest. Balletto agrees the timing of this year’s budbreak is much closer to normal.

In any year, however, the biggest concern post budbreak remains the threat of frost, which growers typically manage with wind machines that circulate warm air through the vineyard and overhead sprinklers that insulate the vines in a protective layer of ice.

“Now that we’ve seen budbreak, we’re staying cautious and informed about of the weather,” Balletto said. “This is the time to be prepared, and my team is ready to go into frost protection mode at any moment.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

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