On April 1, Mendocino County wine grape grower Zac Robinson was feeling more upbeat about the prospects for his 2014 crop than he was two months earlier. Since then, the rain has returned to his Anderson Valley vineyards. That includes a total of about 3 inches that fell just in the last six days of March.

“In terms of water supply, we started the year in a dire place and things have gotten better,” he says. “We’re probably out of the range of unprecedented drought and into a severe drought.”

Robinson and Amanda Robinson Holstine, representing the third generation of their family to grow wine grapes, are co-owners of Husch Vineyards. Planted in the late 1960s on ground formerly used to grow apples and grapes, the vineyard’s 30 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gewurtztraminer include some of the earliest varietal plantings on the valley floor.

 

 

Storage ponds provide much the water for his vines. This year, for the first time since the late 1970s, he started the season with the ponds less than full. Normally, any extra water needed through the season is provided by the area’s rivers and creeks. But, they’re expected to run dry this summer,

“No one in the valley has any surplus water this year,” he says. “We’ll have to get by with whatever we have in our ponds.”

Of more immediate concern for Robinson is availability of water for frost protection. Bud break started in his Chardonnay in mid-March, about 10 days earlier than usual. Soon after that, buds were opening on the Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer. By the start of April, shoots had pushed out about 2 inches.

“Starting the season early like this, without full ponds, makes us extra nervous about frost protection,” Robinson says.

Typically, frost remains a risk in this area until about May 15.

 

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So far, he hasn’t had to run his sprinklers much to defend against freezing temperatures. “At some point, it’s likely that the water we use for frost protection will cut into the amount available for irrigation,” Robinson says. “Then, we’ll have to make some hard choices. But, we’ll cross that bridge, if and when we come to it. Water management will be our biggest challenge this year.”

Fortunately, he recently finished a three-year project to add a second drip line to his vineyards that will reduce his water needs, while improving crop quality. This extra line will be used to irrigate only his stronger vines in a given row. Meanwhile, the original drip line will target just the weaker sections.