Central Coast wine grape grower John Salisbury is expecting a good, average wine grape crop this year.
“The Pinot Noir has really taken off,” he says. “Shoots are out over a foot, and they look like they have plenty of fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are popping out a little late, but also looking pretty good”.
He’s relieved that his new crop has made it past the normal last frost date without suffering any damage. Last year, like other Central Coast growers, an early April freeze caused widespread losses.
“Overall, about 35 percent of vineyards in this part of the state were damaged,” Salisbury says. “Some growers lost half their crop — a few lost everything.”
Salisbury, whose family has been farming continuously in California since starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850, has farmed many crops, ranging from asparagus to tomatoes, in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys and in Mexico near Los Mochis. He traces his interest in wine grapes back to his father and grandfather, who had a small Zinfandel vineyard and packed table grapes, plus asparagus, pears and other fruit in the Walnut Grove and Lodi areas of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Fifteen years ago he settled at San Luis Obispo. “We found a nice spot to concentrate on the wine business,” he says. His wife, son, daughter and her husband are all active in producing and selling wine.
Salisbury Vineyards and Winery includes 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes in Paso Robles. He recently planted another 35 acres of Albariño, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Merlot and cool weather Syrah in the Avila Valley, south of San Luis Obispo. All vineyards are drip irrigated.
This year he and his brother plan to put in wine grape vines on the family homestead in the Sacramento Delta.
“The Avila Valley is surrounded by hills, so we don’t get the heavier winds that blow directly from the ocean into the nearby Edna Valley,” he says. “The summers are beautiful, with nighttime temperatures in the low 50s, fog in the morning until about 9, and then warming to the mid-70s in the afternoon — ideal for our cool weather varietals.
“A 30-minute drive from Avila to Paso Robles, the temperatures are usually in the mid-80s and 90s mostly all summer long, which is perfect for our warm weather varietals. Where else in the world can you get the best of both worlds so close to each other?”
Winter temperatures in the mid- to high 30s are common in the Avila Valley, which is great for dormancy. The hottest weather is in early October when fog is gone; temperatures can break the 100-degree mark then.
Typically, bud break occurs in the Avila Valley area around St. Patrick’s Day and in Paso Robles at the end of March or early April, Salisbury says. He usually finishes harvesting his Avila Valley grapes around the first of October, with the exception of the cool-weather Syrah. That variety comes off around the first of November, giving them about three more weeks of hang time than up north.
“We have picked as late as Nov. 10,” he says. “The harvest in Paso Robles starts in earnest for us around the second week of October.”
He doesn’t get much powdery mildew pressure in the summer and fall. Even an early fall rain doesn’t cause many problems because the vineyards dry quickly, Salisbury says. To control the disease in the spring, he treats with organic mineral oil.
“It kills the fungal spores by encapsulating them. We rarely have any grape mealybugs or aphids, the two main pests in this area, but a little sheen of mineral oil on their soft shells kills them.” He starts the mineral oil applications when shoots are out a few inches. Depending on powdery mildew pressure, he continues this treatment every two to three weeks until veraison, which occurs in early July.
He applies a two percent mineral oil solution in 30 gallons of water per acre. If the powdery mildew index is high, he’ll add a commercial fungicide for extra disease prevention. His vertical trellis system also helps control mildew by improving canopy air flow and sunlight penetration.
“We aim for yields of 2.5 to 3 tons per acre — that’s our sweet spot. So we don’t push our vines heavily. We give them only enough fertilizer to keep them green and healthy, and we keep them watered as needed until pretty close to harvest.”
The future supply of water for irrigation in the Paso Robles area is another of Salisbury’s concerns. With farmers and city dwellers all drawing from the same aquifer, the water table is dropping. Over the last two years, he’s had to lower his pump 40 feet.
With increasing demand for wine grapes attracting new coastal plantings, pressure on groundwater supplies will increase.