Between the end of May and the middle of June, grape grower Bill Pauli’s long face and brooding mood were transformed into a beaming smile and an air of confidence.
The cool, wet weather, which had dampened vine growth and his crop prospects through most of the spring, had been banished by the warming sun.
With vineyards in the Ukiah, Redwood and Potter Valleys of Mendocino County, Pauli Ranch has 1,200 acres of wine grapes, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
During the second week or so of June, his vineyards took full advantage of dry weather and daytime high temperatures of 80-85 degrees and nights in the low 50s.
“Growing conditions have been ideal and the vines have responded by growing really well,” says Pauli, who has been growing grapes for four decades.
Some vines in scattered areas of the county were beginning to flower after the first weekend in June, and by the following weekend the bloom was in full swing.
“We had really nice blooming weather, and everyone seems to be feeling better about the overall outlook for this year’s crop,” Pauli says.
By mid-June, vines were about 10 to 15 days behind their normal development, but with favorable weather for the rest of the season, he’s optimistic that by harvest the crop can make up some, but probably not all, of the lost time.
“The short-term outlook is for nice, clear, warm weather, and not too hot,” Pauli says. “We should have more ideal growing conditions for the next few weeks. With no real heat being forecast for the valley, we may avoid the foggy mornings that would hurt chances of the crop maturing faster.”
His Pinot Noir escaped both shoot botrytis or other wet weather- induced fungal diseases during the last half of May without any real damage, but his Chardonnay is lagging other varietals.
“They are quite a bit behind and don’t seem as vigorous as they should be,” he says. “They had an uneven growth and bloom. Because of last year’s later season and heavier crop, the Chardonnay didn’t come out of the gate strong this year.”
Powdery mildew disease risk index at the start of bloom revealed virtually zero readings, except for Pinot Noir.
Everyone is cautious at this point,” Pauli says. “With all the moisture we’ve had, you wonder what’s coming next. But, so far, I’ve seen no indication of any problems, and I don’t expect any as the weather warms up.”
By mid-June, growers in his area were completing suckering, raising wires and tucking canes. Between the last rain June 5 and bloom, most growers finished mildew sprays and will resume them following bloom. Because of the extended wet weather this spring, growers were catching up on their weed control with chopping or cultivation.
Once bloom is completed, field work will continue with mildew sprays and pesticide applications as needed to control thrips and mites. Some leaf thinning will also be done, depending on varietal and vineyard location. Growers near the Russian River thin more leaves that those on benchlands, where sun burn damage is more of a threat.
Normally, Pauli begins drip irrigation the latter part of June. This year, though, because of the cool, rainy spring, he doesn’t expect to begin until sometime in July.
His outlook for the season has also been bolstered by the number of buyers actively looking for grapes this year. In the last two or three years, many growers in his area had no contracts to sign until harvest, if then.
“Wineries have been out the last three months talking to growers, reviewing their tonnages and clones and signing contracts,” he says. “I hear daily from wineries asking about which varieties are available and who might have them for sale. Quite a number of them are looking to extend contracts that expire, and to add multiple years to contracts in order to pick up additional fruit.”
Prices are also improving. Red varieties are enjoying stronger, much better prices than whites, which are a bit more in demand than last year and at slightly higher prices, he says.
“Growers are really concerned following the low prices of the last two years,” Pauli says. “We know prices have moved up — it’s a question of how much wineries can raise their prices to recover, and how much of that we growers can get to survive another year.”