Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cerro Prieto Vineyard...".Firsts"

Yes, firsts. Some of you may think I am referring to the recent spate of good news our wines have received in Wine Enthusiast recently...Nope, but I am very grateful for all the recent accolades nationally and internationally. We are both proud and grateful for all the recent good press.  Instead, I am referring to some things that have never happened here at the vineyard before, and they are both quirky, and definitely "Firsts".

Pretty easy to begin in mid July when in the midst of a sweltering heat spell, it suddenly rained...and then kept raining....30 hours to be exact, and a record for any month, 6 1/4 inches here at the vineyard. I have no pictures of that but we got some incredible ruts in the middle of our red rock roads, plus some substantial erosion in the middle of the vineyard. 6 1/4 inches of rain is the largest single rain I have experienced in my 38 yrs here in Paso Robles. It is hands down the largest summer rain ever recorded here. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how much rain we had all of 2014. Amazing, unbelievable...a First. Add to that a summer that has been remarkable for Houston style, in the high 80%, sometimes into the 90%. That , too, is a first. For the first time ever in 4 decades here, the climate is changing...or has changed. Doesn't mean that it won't revert back to normal next yr, but it definitely has changed this yr. And THAT is a first.

One of the things you have read about in this blog has been the spectacular temperature swings we have day/night. In previous years we have had 70 degree day nite temp swings, on occasion 80 degree swings. This past August was hot and stayed hot...and humid. But at night, instead of temps falling into the low 40s and high 30s, we have had balmy, 70 degree nites...another first.
Usually green until late Nov, this spring fed poison oak bush has a couple green leafed Live Oaks growing up thru it. The poison oak itself is dead with a few yellow leaves remaining.

Going back farther, I mentioned early in May that we had poison oak leaves beginning to turn to fall colors, but there always is a small portion of poison oak on northern facing slopes that remains green until Fall. Not this yr as you will see in the picture below. There are some green leaves here but those are live oak tree leaves. The remainder of this sprawling poison oak vine is either bare or has a few remnant yellow leaves remaining. This area is well shaded, has a natural spring under it, and usually remains green until November when the hard freezes come. Not this year, tho, and that is another first.

Of greater importance, and something we have every year are the winds of spring. Typically we have 6 to 20 knot Westerly winds that come up in early spring, and blow most every afternoon from 2:30 until just after sunset. Generally these are good for pollination as long as the wind velocity stays under 20-25 knots. Not uncommonly, we get really windy spring days, and get winds in the 20-40 knot range, usually in gusts. Occasionally we get 40-60 knot winds, with gusts up into the 60-90 knot range. I used to rely on anemometer for these readings, but instead now calculate wind velocities of 60- 90 knots based on whether the heavy teak furniture on our protected back deck is carried away or not. If the teak chairs end up in the Merlot vineyard 1/2 mile from here, we had 60-90 knot gusts. For the record, 90 knot winds are early hurricane winds, and if you try walking into it, you will be unable to make much progress...if any. So far, nothing new. This year, however, we got our late March thru early May westerlies, which howled up the draws and ravines, then went racing down the mountain vineyards even faster. And we got extended periods of this. Still, that happens not infrequently. The difference this year has been that we got successive days of BIG WINDS, some that never let up.
One of many Cab vines with zero clusters of grapes. Vines on either side likewise had no fruit. This is not what you want to see.

Bloom this year was magnificent, with every blossom on every cluster just perfect. It looked to be a perfect bloom, and besides birds and bees, we had the Westerlies to help in pollination. What we didn't want however, was the sustained high velocities we got, and seemingly were here right smack dab in the midst of Cabernet bloom. Bloom in a 90 knot gust of wind does not stay on the vine long. There were times when one could see the bloom and pollens being ripped off the vines....that is if you could stand up straight enough to see it occur. I merely noted this, and in time, spring gave way to summer. What looked like a good fruit set, however, soon became a sparse fruit set. And worse yet, it seemed to be thruout the Cab, in all 3 blocs. Thinking I wasn't getting a good reading, I waited until after verasion , when green grapes turn to purple. Going thru the vineyard on the ATV confirmed what I had thought earlier on...little to few grapes on many grapes on others. And there, folks, was another first. It looked as if some thief had come in the night and stolen virtually all our Cab. NEVER have I seen an event like this before, tho certainly I have seen light fruit sets. This was a horse of another color, however. This was virtually no fruit set. Yes, there are a few areas in the blocs where several vines all have grapes. But that is unusual, and most Cab vines are devoid of fruit. This was definitely a first for me, for here, for anywhere. Light fruit sets we have had with the drought...2012 was an example where we had roughly 12 tons instead of our normal 25 tons. But this... wow, this is just hard to believe.
Look hard and you will see 1 cluster and one abortive cluster...but that's it.

It doesn't stop here, though. We also have a number of dead oak trees...Live Oaks, which have been here for centuries, and have made it thru drought , severe heat, and kept on ticking. This year, we have had almost 6% of our Live Oaks die off, something never seen before here. County wide the average for die off of Live Oaks is 3%. On the road cut just below our home, we have over a dozen dead oaks there alone. And that is another first. We may have lost oak trees which were snapped off by high winds, but never have we seen such a die off as we have had this yr.
The dead leaves belong to 3 oaks, all small with 18" diameter, all dead as a doornail..

Additionally, we lost a massive 80 ft Live Oak just outside our vineyard fence. It fell over in no wind at all but rather on a blistering hot day. I came home from the store at 6:15 p.m., and noted that a couple good sized branches had fallen across the county road, Las Tablas Willow Creek Rd.  I considered briefly getting some rope from the barn and pulling the branches off the road, but in the end, it would have been awkward at best, and failed at the worst. So I went thru the vineyard and figured that the next day someone else would have moved the fallen limbs. Next day I drove down to see if the tree limbs had been moved, only to note that a massive 80 ft. Live Oak had fallen right along the roadside. Evidently, it had gone down just 5-10 minutes after I had left and fell cleanly along the side of the road. It took down some of the vineyard deer fencing but the most bizarre finding was that the tree had toppled over due to only a few tiny roots that remained, anchoring the 3 ft, diameter tree to the ground. With no wind, those remaining few atrophied roots were nowhere near enough of an anchor to keep the tree upright. With so much weight above ground, the tree literally just fell over. Look at the few remaining roots (in lite tan on photo) that were responsible for this mighty oak standing upright. No way could so few living roots successfully anchor such a huge tree. Also, given that I had planned to be pulling some branches out of the way with ropes and my truck, it was obvious that had I attempted to do so, I would have been crushed when this massive oak toppled over. Talk about blind luck...

This root ball should have been 15 ft across, with masses of root systems holding huge amounts of dirt, yet the oak was anchored by only 4 tiny atrophied roots (in light tan color)

So with the multiple dead Live Oaks on our property plus this bizarre falling of this huge oak, we had two firsts never seen here before.
This 80 foot Live Oak was 3 ft in diameter.

Lastly are two other events that again are firsts. Both involve my two favorite trees of the fall. One is the Chinese Pistache tree and the other is the Oregon Pear...both ornamentals, and both with magnificent colors in the fall...late in November, long after harvest is over. The Chinese Pistache turns a glorious orange, then deep red...and stays that way for at least a month, sometimes longer. Then being deciduous, the leaves fall. Well, not only is it not late November, but the photo below was taken two weeks ago, Aug 15th. Note the top of the Pistache showing definite deep orange color, and even a tad of lovely red. Again, another first.
Chinese Pistache bright orange and yellows 3 months early

The Oregon Pear, also ornamental, likewise turns orange, red, then flame red, and finally a deep red-black, before the colorful leaves fall...again in late November. Note the Oregon Pear has already begun to go thru its color change, with many flame red to dark red leaves in amongst the still green leaves. This has never happened the entire 4 decades I have lived here, yet there it is. Another first, fall colors coming a full 3 months before it has ever happened before.
Oregon Pear deep red colors 3 months early

So altho I wasn't counting, the amazing number of "FIRSTS" is just a sampling the bizarre happenings going on this year. The fact that we lost our huge temperature splits for the first time ever this August may have had a hand in this. The record 4 years of severe drought, the sustained heat with little cooling off at nite, the utterly bizarre 6 1/4 inch rain in July, the north slope poison oak going dormant 3 months early, the dead Live Oaks, the atrophied roots of the massive roadside oak with resultant tree fall...the sustained spring winds gusting to 60-90 knots and recurring every afternoon for 6 weeks, the virtual stripping of our Cab bloom away by these winds...well, that is an awful lot of firsts, none of which we have seen before, and which we very definitely do not wish to see again. The unpleasant and formerly unknown humidity...well I don't think anyone could argue this is climate change. But is it global warming? Doubtful, if only because this is but one solitary year. But was this year bizarre, unexpected, never seen before? Definitely yes, and unfortunately, a year of FIRSTS.


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