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.

Upbeat about crop prospects

“Growers tend to underestimate the importance of water as the delivery system of nutrient minerals to the vine,” she continues. “We often compare our growing techniques to the French viticulture practice of no water inputs.  However, not getting enough water is as bad as getting too much in terms of quality impact on the fruit.” 

This month, she’ll continue treating her vineyards to protect against powdery mildew. She started with a dormant lime-sulfur spray in late January and early February. “It helps even out the playing field by removing a lot of the fungal spores before they have a chance to come out in the spring,” Foxx notes.

After bud break, she switches to JMS stylet oil, “I like to use an eradicant, like this, early in the season, instead of a suppressant, to eliminate the powdery mildew spores as they first come out,” she says.

Later, she’ll treat the vineyards, as needed, with fungicides to control the disease. She’ll include an early-season foliar application of micro nutrients with these sprays.

Last year, yields in the Santa Cruz Mountains were 30 percent or more above average, Foxx reports. Because of the favorable weather last spring, production could also be up this year or at least normal, she adds.

Foxx annually does a winter bud analysis to determine the number of viable fruit buds on her vines. “Based on the results, I don’t expect yields to be spectacular this year,” she says. “But, they don’t look bad, either.”

Growers in her area are upbeat about their crop prospects for 2013 at bud break. “With the beautiful weather, everyone is really optimistic,” Foxx says. “Despite concerns about water, which is something we’ll have to pay attention to, it looks to be a very promising season. The growers here in the Santa Cruz Mountains are making tremendous strides in improving the quality of their fruit. They’re pruning, keeping the fruit and foliage clean with good, sound spray programs and they’re managing canopies to provide their grapes proper exposure to sunlight.”

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