Carson Smith’s Madera Country wine grape vineyards were in the midst of bud break — some were pushing out while other, slower-developing buds were still swollen. As a result Smith expected the shoots to reach four to six inches in length by early April.
That timing is a bit off the normal pace due to cold weather during the previous few weeks, he says.
Smith has been growing grapes for the past 14 years. His company, Carson Smith Farming Co., Inc., and his partner, own and manage 800 acres of grapes in southwest Madera County along the San Joaquin River. The vineyards include French Colombard, planted in 1981, and Ruby Cabernet, planted in 1997. Chardonnay and Muscat vines, planted in 2010, will produce their first crop next year.
By mid-March, Smith had cleared vineyards of tall weeds and watered the vines to help protect new growth from possible freezing temperatures.
“We just wrapped up our spring irrigation, so the ground is clean and sealed and in the best shape for frost protection.”
Depending on weather prospects, Smith tries not to disturb any soils in his vineyards until the last week of April.
Meanwhile, he plans to start the regular powdery mildew control program in early April, when he’ll make the first of three or four fungicide sprays, on a two- to three-week schedule, based on the weather.
He’ll rotate among different classes of chemistry for each of the succeeding sprays. As an extra measure of protection, he includes three pounds per acre of wettable sulfur powder with the sprays.
Due in part to high soil pH, zinc uptake by his vines is low, Smith says. Consequently, he uses results from testing of tissue samples taken at bloom each year to determine how much zinc to add to the mildew spray.
About the third week of May, after the last fungicide spray, he’ll switch to sulfur for controlling mildew. He’ll dust vines with the first of six or seven weekly applications of elemental sulfur, continuing this treatment, applying 10 to 12 pounds of sulfur per acre each time, until veraison.
As he begins his 15th season in the vineyards, Smith is upbeat about the market for his grapes.
“Wineries are inquiring about buying grapes earlier in the year than in the past five years,” he says. “Also, some wineries are making long-term planting contracts. They must think things are looking good, at least for the next several years.”
He’s also encouraged by the demand for the types of grapes he and other San Joaquin Valley farmers grow.
“In the current economy, consumers are price-sensitive. They seem to be drinking as much wine as they were several years ago, but they’re moving down in the price they want to pay for their wine. That works well for growers in the Valley.
“Some of the nursery people tell me that French Colombard and Muscat are making up most of the new plantings,” Smith says. “We’re coming back full circle to where we started 30 years ago.”