Buds on the Pinot Noir grapevines in the Santa Cruz Mountains region of California’s Central Coast are popping open. This follows the late-March bud break in Chardonnay. It was the first variety in this appellation, which also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

“The bud break in Pinot Noir in the southern part of the appellation is about a week to 10 days behind normal,” says PCA Prudy Foxx, Foxx Viticulture, Santa Cruz, Calif. “Everything else seems to be on schedule.”

Although most of her vineyards are in the Corralitos area on the western side of the mountains, she also works with vines in the Las Gatos and other areas on the eastern side.

Typically, bud break starts in either the Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. “In the last few years, Chardonnay has definitely come out first,” Foxx says.

The later opening of the Pinot Noir buds reflects deliberately delaying pruning. “We don’t send crews through the Pinot Noir vineyards until early March, because we want to delay bud break and bloom with the hope of avoiding spring rains,” she explains.  “Warm dry weather improves conditions for a favorable fruit set. The Pinot Noir flower is a much more delicate structure than is Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Cold or wet weather makes it difficult for pollen to make its way down the narrow pollen tube to create new fruit. Rain during bloom can devastate the fruit set in Pinot Noir. The French call thiscoulure.”

Normal fall rains raised hopes that the area would avoid a second straight dry winter, Foxx notes. But, then, the rains stopped. Aided by cold temperatures, which reduced evaporation, the heavier clay soils in the area retained good amounts of moisture through the winter. However, sandier soils required supplemental irrigation this winter. Last season was the first time she had to do that.

“Some sophisticated techniques are available for testing soil moisture,” Foxx says. “But nothing beats a shovel and soil probe to see what the soil moisture levels are.”

Rain the last week of March, ranging from about half an inch to an inch, helped the situation. However, in certain cases, it wasn’t enough, she warns.  “Growers should remain vigilant and check their sites,” Foxx says. “We don’t want the soils to dry out completely. It’s almost impossible to re-wet the soils with drip irrigation, alone, as the season progresses.