Bud break came late to his Mendocino County vineyards this year, says grower and PCA Mike Boer, Ukiah, Calif.
In the first week of April the buds on his Chardonnay vines were out and he had his frost protection going. Meanwhile, the last of his several varieties to bloom, Cabernet Sauvignon, was just about to pop, he reports.
“In January, with the weather we were having, it looked like we could be headed towards an early bud break,” Boer says. “But, now we’re probably 10 to 14 days behind average and that’s pretty close to last year.”
Several 80-degree days during the last week of March — one of the wettest on records — gave his Chardonnay vines a good push, he notes.
Were such temperatures to continue soon after bud break, all his varieties could get off to a quick start. “That’s part of the deal,” Boer says. “It’s a 90-day race between bud break and canopy development. You have to be ready to run as fast as needed to stay up with the vines.”
A third-generation grape grower, whose grandfather planted his first vineyard in 1946, Boer owns and operates Stipp Ranch. It includes 44 planted acres of grapes and another 60 acres of vineyards on leased land. In addition to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, he grows Gewürztraminer, Muscat Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel. Boer also offers viticultural consulting services through Ag Unlimited.
He farms mostly on alluvial soils. They tend to be slightly higher in magnesium, which reduces availability of potassium, zinc, manganese, copper and iron, Boer notes. To help correct that, he treats his vineyards every fall with 1 to 4 tons per acre of compost, usually a blend of cow manure and grape pumice, as needed.
The compost amount applied in each vineyard is based on results of a spring soil test. “I don’t apply compost until I need it,” Boer says. “Like any fertilizer, you can get soils out of balance by putting on too much.”
He seeks to balance his soils by keeping the base saturation percentage for calcium in the high 60s and that for magnesium in the low teens. He does that by adding limestone or gypsum based on the results of soil testing.
His Merlot vines demand more zinc and boron than his others, he adds. “Any deficiencies are accentuated by poor weather. So, generally, I apply zinc and boron as a foliar spray prior to or at bloom to ensure adequate amounts for fruit set. Frequently, molybdenum is also required and can be applied with the zinc and the boron.”
By mid-April or so, he’ll begin to get some idea of his crop prospects this year by how the clusters are emerging, the number of clusters forming per shoot, whether they have shoulders and how their architecture looks. “We really won’t know what we have until bloom and fruit set,” he says.
Last year’s crop load on his vines was slightly above average. Some growers might consider Boer’s pruning practices to be on the sloppy side. He allows more buds on his vines than necessary, as insurance against frost or adverse weather that could reduce fruit set. “I’m breaking the viticultural rules,” he admits. “I leave too many shoots per foot of vine and too many buds per pound of pruning weight. It costs me more to go back in the vineyards and thin shoots. But, it’s economically prudent.”
As with most North Coast growers, Boer is concerned about the economics of grape growing.
“We’re farming hope,” he says. “For the most part, we went through all of last year without a contract to sell our grapes. At the end, those of us who managed to get Central Valley prices were considered lucky. It’s hard to work your tail off, just to break even, and feel good about it. We need to get enough money from our crop to at least survive and that hasn’t happened for a couple of years. We need someone to need our grapes or there are going to be a lot fewer of us left out here.
“It’s all about the market. We’re hopeful. It seems like there’s less bulk wine now and wine sales are up. But, I don’t think we’ll really know until fruit set whether the market for us in Lake and Mendocino counties will be good this year.”