California Vineyards Report Early Bud Break

Strange winter brings 'premature' bud break in late January

by Jane Firstenfeld
In 2010 Bien Nacido Vineyards reported bud break in mid- to late March (above). This year, vineyard manager Chris Hammell said buds are starting to swell early. Farther north, growers in Napa and Sonoma counties started seeing bud break as early as late January.

Napa, Calif.—Wine grape grower Jennifer Thomson ordered pruning of her family’s Napa vineyards in January. But driving through Napa’s back roads this weekend, the fourth-generation grower saw several unpruned grapevines showing signs of bud break.

Thomson’s family has farmed vineyards on the Napa side of the Carneros AVA since 1938, with a current total of 90 acres. The vines displaying bud break were not part of Thomson’s vineyards but on some nearby rolling hills. Choosing to keep its skilled crew of four working year-round, Thomson Vineyards started pruning during the record-dry month of January.

“We were among the first to do it in Carneros,” Thomson said. “Taking advantage of the dry period keeps disease pressure low.”

Buds are starting to push on a smattering of the yet-unpruned vines, she said. About 70% of the vines are already pruned. “We’ll begin working on the last 30% of pruning this week.”

Thomson kept her trained crew working through the winter with trellis amendments and cleaning up equipment barns disheveled by the August Napa earthquake. “We have to keep them working so they didn’t jump ship,” she said of the laborers.

With her longtime family background, Thomson watches other plants bloom: “Pears and plums come first. When you see acacias bloom, it’s panic mode: Finish pruning,” she explained.

Thomson noted that seeing bud break in late January is “stressful for growers, labor and vines.”

Al Wagner, director of vineyard management at Napa’s 70,000-case Clos du Val commented, “The acacias are blooming.” Although he hasn’t noted significant bud break in the winery’s 300 acres of Napa County vineyards, he has seen a small amount of bud swell. “It’s safe to say bud break will be in about two weeks,” Wagner predicted.

About 75% of Clos du Val’s vineyards already have been pruned, starting in early January, and Wagner predicted that pruning would be complete in 10-14 days. He’s not worried about post-pruning damage, saying, “We spray with fungicide for Eutypa, right behind pruning. This has given us good success for six or seven years.”

Francisco Araujo, senior viticulturist for Atlas Vineyard Management, which farms approximately 1,000 acres in California’s North Coast, Santa Barbara County and Oregon’s Willamette Valley, commented that 2015 is shaping up as an early growing season. “There is not yet generalized bud break, but growers are seeing signs of an early onset, especially in vineyards where soil is shallower and the vines are weaker.” For growers who have pre-pruned, “It’s not a big deal,” he said.

Atlas started pruning in Sonoma County in January, and its vineyards are “probably about 40% pruned.” He expects pruning to last another month, until early March.

“If we started pruning in December, we’d have to protect the cuts with fungicide. It’s ideal to prune in late January or February,” Araujo said. “When the wounds start bleeding, the natural sap means the vine is already active.”

Santa Barbara reports ‘widespread regrowth’
“In Santa Barbara, the vine cycle starts earlier than in the North Coast,” Araujo noted.

Members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners also reported noteworthy activity in the vineyards.

From Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, vineyard manager Chris Hammell wrote that he’s seen no bud break but, “We had fairly widespread regrowth after harvest, primarily from the tops of the shoots/canes. This is very unusual. We are seeing bud swell early, as of Feb. 1, in our warmest sites.

“We have had a very mild winter and would actually prefer frost during this dormant time,” Hammell said. “From a timing perspective, last year was very early. It’s really too soon to tell, but things are looking pretty much the same.”

He expects to complete pruning by mid-February.

Duvarita Vineyard in Lompoc, Calif., has not seen any bud break yet. “It was around 30° F for a couple of nights over the past month, but it did not cause us any problems. Actually, it killed some of the continued green growth at the end of the shoots,” said Brook Williams.

“We are starting to prune today. Late pruning is better for disease resistance and can delay bud break. Last year was about three weeks early for us. We had bud break in late February last year, but I hope with delayed pruning we can push that back into March of this year.”

There’s been some bud break on pre-pruned canes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at Cebada Vineyard in Lompoc, said owner Sandy Newman. Generally, he expects bud break the third week of February, same as in 2014. Cebada pre-pruned two weeks ago and started pruning today.

Located at 1,050-feet elevation in the Eastern Foothills of Santa Ynez Valley, Baehner Fournier was pruned 10 days ago, according to owner Bob Baehner. Bud break, he said, is typically in early March.

Higher elevation blocks at Presqu’ile Vineyard in California’s Santa Maria Valley are showing bud swell, but “no textbook bud break yet. It could be any day in these locations for Chardonnay,” said vineyard manager Jim Stolberg.

There have been no frost issues: “It was welcome because we’ve had a warm winter so far and needed the dormancy help,” he said. Bud break seems to be arriving “a few weeks later than last year. We will be finished pruning in the next week.”

Ampelos Cellars’ vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills has not shown any bud break, according to Peter Work. “We see some cotton pushing up on the Pinot Noir blocks and a tiny bit on the Syrah, very similar to last year, when we also had a warm January.”

Work commented that the vineyard growing season is “in general, a little earlier than usual, but similar to 2014.” Pruning of Pinot Noir is 60% complete. “Later this week we will move to Syrah and Grenache, and the last blocks of Pinot Noir that show more sign of cotton will be pruned last.”

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