Ojai Reports Early Bud Break

Rhone varieties bud out following largest wildfire in California history

by Jaime Lewis
wine ojai vineyard bud break growing season
Grenache Noir vines leaf out at Ojai Alisal Vineyard in Ventura County this week. The Thomas Fire came right up to the vineyard perimeter. Photo: Ojai Alisal/Twitter

Ojai, Calif.—The 2018 growing season has started in California’s Ventura County. Ojai Alisal Vineyard’s Viognier broke bud Jan. 31, and in the midst of routine pruning Feb. 4, bud break also was discovered in the vineyard’s Grenache Noir.

“This is a normal time of year for us to prune,” said Bruce Chernof, a partner and operator of Ojai Alisal. “In colder winters, we don’t usually see bud break until the first week of March—and even in warmer winters, it’s usually the end of February before we see it. But this year, we saw swelling throughout the end of January.”

A 20-acre property with 3 acres under Rhone-varietal vines, Ojai Alisal is located about 2,500 feet above sea level, just above the town of Ojai. Its oldest blocks were planted in 2010, with a couple other blocks subsequently planted.

“I would say, even from our warmest, earliest bud break, this is a good two to three weeks early,” Chernof said, adding that he believed Ojai Alisal was the first to see bud break in Ventura County, though he knows of at least one other neighboring vineyard whose vines have reached bud break by now, as well.

According to Chernof, contributions to the early bud break include a lack of cold winter weather and possibly the effects of the Thomas Fire, which scorched land right up to the edges of the vineyard and was just listed as 100% contained Jan. 12.

“We usually get pretty cold nights, and we like the vines to harden off as much as possible in winter, to give them rest and help them grow stronger,” he said. “It’s not based on hard science, but we think the combination of warm weather and fire may have confused the vines. It gets cold up here, but the warmth of the fire may have warmed the temperature up.”

Chernof said he typically sees flowering in his vineyard in May, although the early start to the season puts that date in question. “We do worry about frost, but we have never actually had a problem because of the specific microclimate: prevailing breezes and hill geography,” he said.

“I think the thing none of us really knows is: With bud break being so early, will the same rules apply? The grapes tend to plunk along just fine up here, then late August or early September, we get a heat spell, which makes everyone’s grapes run. Our vines are old enough we don’t irrigate anymore except in late August to slow them down. Our hang time can run a little short if the heat pushes the grapes, but if they don’t have that heat...? It will be interesting to see how everything shakes out,” he said.

For the time being, despite the irregularities of the current growing season, Chernof sees healthy vines growing in his vineyard. “We prune everything ourselves, and they seem really happy, budded-out and pretty well hardened off. You go to cut them, and they bleed just like they should. They’re raring to go.”

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