All Things Being Equinox

2013 grape growing season off to early start

Bud break came early this year. Real early for some. Reports began coming in from some of the warmer parts of Napa Valley and Carneros as early as mid-February — as early as some some remember.

Phil Coturri, who farms vineyards up and down Sonoma Valley, remembers his mentor Joe Miami telling him tall tales about bud break occurring on Feb. 22 decades ago. “I never believed him,” said Coturri, “But I thought it was going to happen this year.”

Spring comes to the vineyard

Spring comes to the vineyard

It’s a farmer’s lot to worry and to complain. They will complain about not having enough rain. They will complain about too much rain. They will complain about it being too warm or too cool. And of, of course, after watching the vines all winter obsessing over primordial clusters and pruning decisions they will complain about bud break coming too early or too late.

“After doing this for 40 years, you’re always concerned, but what the fuck can I do about it?” said Coturri.

Coturri does say that this year is a little more “normal” that the last few. But a farmer watches the fields and the plants tell him what is going on, for the most part. Says Coturri: “The moons control it.”

The natural cycle of the plant pushes the buds out at or about the equinox, which is March 20. “That’s kind of working in the rhythm of the plant. The equinox is a big day for a plant, because it’s the first day where the days are longer than the nights,” says winemaker Mike Benziger. “It doesn’t take long for a plant to realize that and then it’ll get the machinery of the plant rolling.”

But a couple of weeks of warm weather with very little rain and lots and lots of sunshine had the vines fooled. When the mean temperature is 50 degrees for 10 days in a row a hormonal signal fires in the plants. Exceedingly dry conditions across Napa and Sonoma have only exacerbated the warmth, since the dry soils heat up more quickly. “Right now the machinery of the plant is rolling a little bit sooner than it should be, because it’s kind of tricked because of the weather conditions and the environment,” says Benziger. “But normally all of the momentum happens right around the equinox.”

There are a couple of dicey weeks this week and next, as temps drop and the weather turns wetter. In the past, frost protection measures — an armed forces of fans, sprinklers, smudge pots — have been sufficient, but Benziger cautions that what has done the trick in the past might not continue to be adequate. “With the way the climate has been changing and the extremes that we have been getting, you can’t say for certain that you’re 100 percent protected and you can’t say for certain that you’re out of the dark until frost season is well over.”

Both Benziger and Coturri think we are in for an early harvest this year. The long-term forecast is for a dry and warmer summer. “We could have an extremely early harvest this year,” says Benziger.

Which suits Coturri just fine. “I prefer seeing an earlier year than the late years we’ve had for the last few years,” Coturri says. “We won’t be pushing into the fall rains as much and it gives us more time on the ripening curve if we have a cooler summer.”

And today’s soundtrack: