WineInk: On Water and Wine
“It’s nuking snow!” If you live in a ski town then you know that this entire winter season has seen tons of it. Especially lately, we have had wave after wave of warm, wet precipitation turning this into one of the best ski seasons in recent memory.
But our good fortune has had a reverse effect for many who live in California wine country. The pinot noir mecca of the Russian River Valley appellation in Sonoma County has been deluged by prodigious rainfall. Days before we get our snow, the storms charge from the far side of the Pacific Ocean and, one after another, empty like a faucet on the Sonoma coast, dropping unprecedented rains on the hills and vineyards.
Last week during the final days of February, the “atmospheric river,” as climatologists describe the phenomenon because it runs like an airborne stream across the sea, produced the most extensive flooding in Sonoma County since 1995. That’s nearly a quarter century. The Russian River, from which the appellation takes its name, peaked at 46 feet on the evening of Feb. 27 and the communities of Guerneville, Rio Nido and Forestville all experienced severe flooding. Santa Rosa, which was the site of the devastating fires less than two years ago, received 5.66 inches of rain (think the equivalent of 4 feet of heavy wet snow if a ratio of 10-1 is used) in 24 hours. That is a 100-year record. Estimates put the county damage north of $150 million and newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for Sonoma County making residents eligible for state funding.
So how will all of this rain affect the vines and the 2019 harvest? Well, perhaps not as much as you might think.
The bad news is that the steady movement of floodwaters can damage infrastructure, taking out trellises and leaving behind torn and damaged vines as they recede. Thus far the damage appears to be mostly to the river towns themselves, but with more storms to come the vineyards on the valley floors could still have some drainage issues going forward. The threat to mountain vineyards is mostly due to potential erosion that occurs when soils run off the slopes and into the ravines and rivers.
The good news is that, in early March, the vines are still in a state of dormancy in California. “Some people haven’t even started pruning,” said Sonoma-based wine maker Mike Lucia, whose Rootdown Wine Cellars sources organic grapes from Sonoma, Mendocino and Amador counties for his single-vineyard wines. “On wet winters such as this, vines shut down and get ‘wet feet,’ if you will, where the root hairs are basically suffocated and won’t wake the vine for bud break until the soil reaches the perfect moisture and temp level.” His prediction? “My guess is we’ll have a normal to late bud break.” A veteran of the region, he first came to Healdsburg in Sonoma in 1992. Mike has experienced many vintages, both wet and dry, at places like DeLoach, Goldeneye and Copian before establishing Rootdown in 2014.
It is still early and the vines’ process of producing grapes has yet to begin. In more northerly wine regions like Washington, Southern British Columbia and in European regions like Burgundy, Alsace and the hillside vineyards along the Rhine River in Germany, it is not unusual for winter snows to cover the vineyards with little effects. Timing is everything and if inclement weather is to come it is best in the earliest months before spring.
For the most part, vintners and California residents are pretty happy about having some precipitation. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara wine country, I was gratified to see the return of green hillsides after seven years of California drought. The reservoirs are starting to fill to more acceptable levels and more than 87 percent of the state is considered to be drought-free.
“You ought to see it when the sun is shining,” said Katie Grassini as I stared out the second floor window of her Grassini Family Vineyards winery in mid-February at a steady rain falling on the fallow vines. If there was any place in the Santa Barbara wine region that I could have hoped for dry weather, it would have been there in Happy Canyon, the warmest and driest part of the appellation. But, as I tasted through the superb Grassini sauvignon blanc and cabernet blends, the grapes that thrive in the drier climes of Happy Canyon, I couldn’t help but consider the magnificent effect this moisture will have on the surrounding mountains this upcoming spring.
Yes, there can be too much of a good thing, but for the time being the vineyards of California are blessed with an abundance of rain. And the slopes of Colorado are equally blessed with abundant snow.
It portends a fine 2019.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.