With just a few vines here and there showing a bit of green on the buds, wine grape growers started the month of March with the same dry weather conditions they had experienced for much of the winter.
“We had some early winter rains but not much since then,” says Larry Bettiga, University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor for Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. “Soil moisture is pretty low. In the southern part of the Salinas Valley, around Kings City, it’s quite a bit below normal. The soils at the northern end are in a little better shape, but they’re still below normal in moisture.”
As a result, growers have been irrigating this winter to bring soil moisture levels up. But, that’s not unusual for this area, he notes.
The situation is much the same for growers farther south in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, reports Mark Battany, UCCE viticulture farm advisor there. “It’s been a while since we had a decent rain,” he says. “It’s a pretty big concern. Growers are putting on a fair bit of water to make up for the lack of rain. Growers with sprinklers have been making good use of them, while drip irrigation through the winter has also been common. The vines don’t need a full soil profile and that really isn’t possible to achieve with drip irrigation. But growers would still like a good amount of water in the soil to minimize stress on the vines through fruit set. If there’s not much change in precipitation, they’ll have to irrigate a lot more than usual this year.”
By the first week of March initial bud break had been reported in the Gonzales area of Monterey County. The week before temperatures had risen into the high 70s and low 80s. “Several days of temperatures like that at this time of year can move things along a little faster,” Bettiga says. “But, if temperatures drop to normal, we generally see bud break in the second week of March.”
Usually, daytime high temperatures reach the mid-60s. By the first weekend of March, nighttime temperatures in the more inland areas were still dropping into the 30s. “That’s not unusual,’ Bettiga says. “We can get some cold temperatures this time of year. But, as we get closer to bud break that makes you a little nervous.”
Meanwhile, the dry winter weather has had its upside – it’s aided growers in preparing fields for putting in new vines. “Planting contracts are being made,” he adds. “I think we’ll see a spurt of activity for the next few years as growers replace older blocks or develop new vineyards. We haven’t seen a lot of that in recent years.”
And, the dry winter has done little to dampen growers’ spirits. “The last few years have been a little tight financially for growers,” Battany says. “But, the market has picked up quite a bit. Prices are good, growers are happy and substantial new vineyard acreage is being planted.”
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