Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coldest, Most Coldest, and Most Awfulest Coldest

True, my 4th grade grammar teacher wouldn't think much of the title, but it fits to a tee. It is cold...and currently raining...an icy cold, miserable, bone chilling  rain. Looking back on my last 3 blogs,  it seems as if I am stuck on the weather, but quite frankly, since my last post 10 weeks ago( I know, cardinal sin of bloggers is to not write routinely, but more on that in a minute), weather is all that I have had on my mind...and the title tells why. Just when I was preparing to sit down and write a blog 5 weeks ago, the above title occurred. I was out on the back deck getting ready to grill a nice ribeye and got a little cold as the sun  dropped into the western Santa Lucias. The fire was started  so I went to retrieve a warm windbreaker; by the time I came back out, the temp had dropped at least 25 degrees, and it became unbearably cold. I shut down the fire, came back inside and grilled the steak under the broiler. It was at least 40 degrees warmer inside than out, so for grins I checked our outside thermometer. The reading said 38 which was hard to believe, in that it had been a glorious day, somewhere in the high 80s not more than two hours before.

Normally our temperature drops at sunset, but not 40 degrees. Most of our really biting cold comes about 4:30 each morning, when we typically drop down to just above freezing. Oh, one other thing and that is our house is  250 feet above our very cold valley vineyard, and the temp differential is typically 18 degrees warmer up here than down there. Concerned, I checked the thermometer readings just before bed at 10 p.m. on Friday, April 8th, and it read 28... and that is not what you want to see just after you have finished pruning...okay, it was worse than that. We had finished pruning 3 weeks before, and were now expectantly awaiting  bud break, already delayed 3 weeks and counting. By rights, that 28 up here should have been 10 degrees down below. Honestly, I just didn't have the heart to go down below and check our thermometer at 4:30. If it froze(and I had no doubt it did), I just didn't want to know by how much. As they say "frozen is frozen"...except a damaging frost depends on HOW cold and HOW LONG cold. If it stays cold for hours, then we have lost not only our crop but our vines. That happened on another 3 valley acres that froze to death in 2001. In that instance, we had 14 days of 14 degrees, and the frost never left the ground...for three weeks. It was an expensive  but valuable lesson. We did not replant that 3 acres, even tho it has never frozen since.

Just to recount for a moment, Cerro Prieto typically is the dead last vineyard to prune, and typically we are pruning just ahead of bud break. Why is that important? Because if you delay pruning you go into bud break( just like it sounds, the buds break forth from their positions on the cordon), and if you are caught pruning late with buds already out , invariably many buds will get broken off in the pruning process. Hence, you virtually have to prune before bud break. In our case, we do it at the last possible moment with the full intent of preventing bud break as long as possible. If one were to visit the fine vineyards of Paso's westside, you would have no trouble identifying us. We would be the ones not pruned yet, with the vineyard looking shaggy and unkempt...until late March, that is. As an aside, some folks prune dry farmed vines beginning in mid December, and seem to get away with it. What we have proven beyond any doubt, however, is that at Cerro Prieto to prune early is to court disaster with a hard late spring freeze...and we have had so many this spring that I can't count them all.

Often times at 4:30 in the morning we are awakened to the sound of the large propeller wind machines cranking up and moving the cold air around or out of the vineyard. The green French machines, which require a movable skirt around the vineyard (to pump low lying cold air out of the skirted area), are heard cranking also. Either of these machines, or even water misting on the vines, can protect vines 3, 4 or even 5 or 6 degrees in time of frost. We have NO wind machines, in that we aren't concerned about 3-6 degree temp drops...we are concerned about temps down in the low teens, and nothing helps that....except, perhaps, prayer. Given no options, I started some 6 yrs ago trying to hold back bud break,( when freezing temps can freeze off new formed buds) by pushing our pruning farther and farther back. Now we routinely prune as late as possible , but just before bud break actually occurs. Does it work? Well, definitely yes, but it usually will not protect a small % of vines that get an extraordinary jolt of cold. On the whole, we have salvaged a previously unprotectable vineyard
(the Very Cold Valley Vineyard), merely by changing when we prune. Sounds simple maybe, but carrying it out always is an uncomfortable time.

Mentioned above, I am way too late in getting this post out, but due to long, hard, soaking rains, sleet, and snows, we have had enough water to leave us with weeds 6 feet high or higher around the sides of the vineyard or on the valleys contiguous with the vineyard. Problem with that is, when once dried out, the weeds present a fire hazard, which can wipe a vineyard out in a matter of minutes. Hence we not only have to weed the vineyard we have to care for some 35 other acres that present a fire hazard. And that is why I have not written a blog...all available time was devoted to fire protecting our vineyard, valleys, arroyos, and mountain tops.

 Now we are awaiting new bearings for our flail mower, which struck a large sub-surface rock, the size of my truck, and broke belts, shafts and bearings. Never a dull moment in the vineyard. A full 16 acres needs to be weedeated, and that includes areas where no tractor could go, virtually straight up and down. In the meantime it gives me timeout to write this long overdue blog, and to examine what will be this years potential crop. First off, cluster size looks to be on the high side of large, but until a successful bloom and fruit set we won't know anything for certain. Secondly, we are in the midst of a nuclear winter, and it is a month into spring. Bloom cannot be far behind, as the little clusters that our guests mistakenly take for grapes are clusters of flowers about to bloom. Only after bloom and fruit set will we have a good idea of the size of the crop. Remember, we are pruned to only 2.5 tons/acre or less, which can increase in size if clusters are overly big...and they appear that way early on.

The day has been gray, rainy, cold and inhospitable. In 4 days will begin the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival...which two yrs ago to the day, was 117 degrees downtown in the Paso Robles park. This year will be pleasant to cold...just right for tasting big red wines and their blends....two things we do to perfection. Stop by and see us at the Meritage downtown or come by the vineyard to say hello. We look forward to seeing you all, and wish you a safe and enjoyable Wine Festival weekend.

Photo Key:

Top: Buds are just breaking and some have already leafed out.

Mid: Note long massive rachus with large clusters of...grapes? Nope, these are clusters of buds about to bloom. If fruit sets, then blooms turn into grapes.

Lower: Poor Caza...all that snow and no gophers to dig up.

No comments:

Post a Comment