Bud break began two to three weeks later than usual this year for North Coast wine grape grower Paul Ardzooni. Normally, buds on his vines in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley start opening mid- to late March, but this year that didn’t occur until the first and second weeks of April.
His company, Ardzrooni Vineyard Management at Philo, Calif., manages 25 vineyards in Anderson Valley, ranging in size from 2 to 75 acres. He and his crews also look after vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Counties.
About 80 percent of the grapes are Pinot Noir, which are the first to bud out. The remainder includes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the next varieties to open up, followed by his Alsatian varieties, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. The last variety to come out is Zinfandel, located on the ridge top above Philo. About 95 percent of the buds in the vineyards were open by mid-April, he says.
A later bud break doesn’t necessarily mean a late harvest. Soils have adequate moisture; so, if temperatures warm up, vines could outgrow some of the issues that can occur when the growing season starts slowly, Ardzrooni notes.
“Still, I’m nervous,” he says. “We’ll have to see what the weather brings. If we have warmer temperatures between now and the first of September than we’ve had the past two years, we’ll be good for harvest. If not, it could be another difficult year.
“But, I’m the eternal optimist — I keep thinking ahead and hoping for warmer temperatures. Then the vines should do well.”
Wet weather in March and early April brought 15 inches of rain to his vineyards. A relatively dry winter, with no more than 13 to 15 inches of rain, brought total rainfall since last September to around 28 to 30 inches.
“An average annual rainfall for us is about 32 to 36 inches,” he says. “So, thanks to the almost miracle-like rains this spring, we’re OK water-wise.”
On another positive note, this year’s later bud break means fewer nights for frost to threaten the vines. Depending on the site, he and his crews control frost using overhead sprinklers, micro-pulsators, or wind machines.
Frost remains a threat in the Anderson Valley until early June. In his 22 years of growing grapes here, Ardzrooni says only one was free of frost after bud break. In 2008, he battled frost every night for three straight weeks. June 5 is the latest he’s had to contend with freezing temperatures.
“So far this season, we’ve been up a few nights and turned on frost control several times — but that’s been minimal.”
Raised in Fresno County, Ardzrooni is a fourth-generation grape grower in a raisin producing family. Growing wine grapes in California’s North Coast region presents a very different set of challenges, he says.
“When you’re growing a raisin crop, you hate to see rain in September. But here in the Anderson Valley, weather is a constant battle. We’re only about 15 miles from the coast, and you never know what’s coming in over the ridge and off the Pacific Ocean.
“This time of year, winds from the ocean can blow in from the northwest and the venturi effect of the valley can create some strong breezes. When winds subside during late night and early morning hours, temperatures drop, leading to problems with frost.”
After finishing pruning at the end of March, Ardzrooni and his crew turned their attention in early April to mowing and making bud sprays for disease and insect control.
The arsenal of weapons for fighting their two main disease threats — powdery mildew and botrytis — include organic fungicides, the powdery mildew index and Botrytis index developed by the University of California, and a computerized system of managing weather station data.
“Whenever we can, we use materials to control diseases and pests that have the lowest environmental impact, so we farm sustainably and keep ecosystems in the field in balance,” Ardzrooni says
Thrips and mites are more of a problem early in the season, he says. Bud break sprays are designed to control them, along with the powdery mildew and Botrytis treatments. The idea is that, once the weather warms, the growing vines will be less vulnerable to these insects, and insecticides won’t be needed later in the season.