Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cerro Prieto...The "Money Bush", not the vines... and an awkward summer.

During my four decades as a dermatologist, we had a running joke amongst ourselves about one of the more common ailments we saw in patients: Poison Oak. In a big year we would see miserable patients with horrid poison oak allergic contact dermatitis on a daily basis...many times several patients per day. We began calling it the "Money Bush", in that we could many times pay our monthly rent just from treating patients with poison oak.

Years later, who would have guessed that on our 73 acres of deer fenced property surrounding our vineyard, we would have upwards of 10 acres covered in poison oak. Before we put our vineyard in we had poison oak on our entire 20 acres of about to be planted vineyard. We ripped it, disked it, hoed it, we burned massive piles of it...heck we did everything we could to get rid of it. Sixteen years later we were successful, but in the heavily forested areas, surrounding each bloc of grapes, we still have acres of it...most of it is under the heavy forest canopy, and in the fall it is beautiful as massive plots of it go thru the autumnal colors....from bright green (leaves of three, let them be) to yellow, orange, and then a lovely red. At times you can see a complete carpet of red under the tall live oak trees, and the color may remain for weeks at times. Actually, it is quite beautiful, and is the reason some unsuspecting city folks stop and pick a beautiful bouquet of it. Of course, those were the people we would see next day in the office, miserable and itching from head to toe.

Several years ago with the recognition of el nino currents, beginning off the coast of Chile (usually during Christmas time...el Nino, the Christmas child), then moving up the South American continent, past Central America, up the Baja coast , and then moving the length of California...the warmer than normal water, 56 degrees instead of the usual cooler 52 degrees, brought with it the climatic conditions favoring big rainy years. In 2010 and again in 2011, el Nino brought us 52 and 54 inches of rain...and that was welcome news in the face of a 6" rain in 2009. Now we are headed once again towards an el Nino year, with predictions that the 3 years of terrible drought will finally come to an end. With the drought we have had some unprecedented hot years, 2012-2014. We here in Central Coastal California, Paso Robles in particular, have seen a 15 month summer, beginning in April of 2013. True we had an anomaly Dec 6th-12th of 7 days of mid teens, but that was just a was not sustained, and immediately thereafter, we were back in summer mode...where we have remained to date. What has been extraordinary is our poison oak...the harbinger of fall, but behaving in a manner that has been inexplicable. The first photo below shows one of our massive patches of poison oak on May 15th. Yes, May 15th, and the poison oak has already gone thru the yellow-orange  changes, and appears all red, except for a handful of green leaves still thinking about going thru color change..
May 15th
The next photo is two weeks later, May 29th, and there is little if any foliage remaining on the field of poison oak.
May 29th
Here you see only twigs of poison oak plants, and virtually all but a few leaves have lost their brite red color, instead laying on the ground as dead, brown leaves. In the foreground a Toyon bush remains with three leaves also, but these leaves are serrated and definitely not poison oak.
So what, exactly, does the poison oak think is happening? Surely the drought has played a part, as has the excessive heat... some days in the 108 degree range, which probably has some effect, too. But overall we are seeing here a picture not unlike our last two drought years, 2012 and 2013, with poison oak leaves turning early, dropping, and for all the world, making it look like this is late fall...say late October. Yet these photos were taken while it was still springtime, so somebody, somewhere is playing tricks on our flora. The oppressive heat, during this time frame included 12 days over 105, and then another half dozen days in the 103 range. Just when I thought I was going to melt, I was at home eating breakfast outside overlooking the Syrah and Cab vines, and this is what I saw to the SW.
A massive fog bank had moved in during the nite and instead of it being 78 degrees in the morning, it was a brisk 52. The Westerlies had finally come again, blowing the damp, maritime air (la brisa) down into and through the Templeton Gap. For the entire time of the blistering heat, we had had not one whisper of wind...most unusual for this area. But after almost two and a half weeks of hot, deathly humid weather, our normal weather had returned. It got hot again for a few days, and then reverted to our usual 105 in the daytime and then dropping into the low 40s or high 30s at nite.
True this is a vineyard blog, not a weather one...but the consequences of the above can be seen in some of our grape clusters...the Syrah, in particular. For Pinot Noir, we have virtually all clusters the same size, averaging .17 to .2 lbs per cluster. They are all notably uniform size-wise. The Cab is beautiful, all small berry clusters, all looking to be in the .20 to .25 lb. range. Merlot is likewise all pretty much uniform, their tapered clusters with the two shoulders weighing in at .35 to .40 lbs. per cluster. Sauvignon Blanc is likewise uniformly all of similar size and cluster weights are typically .25 lbs on average. That leaves the Syrah, usually uniform in size and weight with an occasional cluster going to 3/4 lb., but most in the 1/2 lb. range. There will be several clusters on each vine with some .25 lb. clusters, but that is normal. But not this year, however. The Syrah, which is planted in the S/SW facing semi-circular half an amphitheater bowl of solid limestone, is one of our premier blocs. But the clusters in the Syrah look like unmatched pairs of socks. We have a few 1 lb. clusters, some 3/4 lb. clusters, mostly 1/2 lb. clusters, and as usual, a few 1/4 and 1/8 lb. clusters. We have had years of mostly medium size clusters, some years with smaller size clusters, but never have we had a year with clusters ranging all over the board in size. A photo below shows the vast differences in cluster weights.
From left to right, these clusters of Syrah, all from the same vine, came off at 1 lb., 3/4 lbs., 1/2 lb., 1/4 lb, and 1/8 lb.(or 2oz.) Quite a variation for one vine but all clusters look fine. The problem is, the far right 2 oz. cluster is going to ripen well ahead of the 1 lb. cluster on far left. So the question is, just exactly how are we going to handle harvesting the Syrah. Recall as noted above, all other varietals are uniform in size of clusters, but obviously something happened here to delay maturation of the smaller cluster to the right. Also something really juiced up the growth of the far left cluster, weighing in at an incredible 1 lb. The grapes themselves are fine. The problem for us is, at harvest, when the clusters on the right are going to be ripe, the much larger cluster on the far left are not going to be ripened thru and thru. Possibilities could be to do several picks, taking off the 1/4 and 1/8 clusters first time thru, and then picking the larger clusters at a later date. Only problem with that is every pick costs more, and one pick should be sufficient. In effect if we did a twice thru pick, we are doubling what it costs to harvest these grapes. A bigger problem tho, is teaching the pickers to just pick the smaller clusters. The other solution might be to just let the smaller clusters turn to raisins, and wait for the larger clusters to ripen. It is not a catastrophy, nor is it unsolvable. We have frequently done several picks of one bloc, but never have we done partial picks of individual vines. Whatever we end up doing, the Syrah will be sensational, in that it will have a longer hang time this year than ever before. Look for this harvest to produce some Syrah equal or better than our 2010 crop which produced the la Terraza bloc 94 Platinum Medal San Diego Intl winner, and the Syrah el Bordo  Gold Medal Winner from SF Chronicle... actually the 2010 el Bordo Syrah also won another Gold Medal at SD Intl. also. So even though we have plenty of our 2010s left, plan on a knockout Syrah from 2014.
The 15 consecutive months of summer, followed by severe heat spells in May, June, July ...and then follow those with late morning fog banks lasting until 10 a.m., and you have what could easily be called an awkward summer. Why other of  our varietals don't show this kind of dissimilarity of  cluster size, due to the weird heat spells followed by 10 days in the 70s, is beyond me. I do know when we were having these weird gyrations of hot and cold during fruit set, the Syrah was the varietal undergoing fruit set that was subjected to these alternating days of high heats followed by 10-14 days of temps in the 70s and lows in the mid 30s. As they say, if you don't like the weather, then just stick around for a day. The poor poison oak has no idea what time of year it is. Usually a pretty good predictor of when it will turn cold, the poison oak thinks it is late fall at present, and that is still 3 months off...I hope.

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