Santa Barbara County wine grape grower Michael Larner and his peers have high hopes that this will be a better season than the past several, when cooler, wetter weather and diminished grape demand sliced profits.
Last year, a devastating early April freeze turned tender green shoots and clusters a depressing black in many of California’s Central Coast vineyards.
Ironically, frost hit Larner’s vineyards again this year on the same date in early April — only this time the freeze was much less intensive and damage was minimal.
“Right now, the vineyards look good,” says the second-generation grower. “The additional rains in April have produced a much stronger canopy than at this time last year. Shoot growth is more even and fruit development seems to be spot on for a healthy crop. With some 90-degree temperature in the forecast as we start bloom, it should mean much less shattering than last year.”
“We’re starting the season very optimistic, and everything points to a good vintage. We just hope we avoid the problems of recent years, when everything looked good until rains hit during harvest.”
The family-run Larner Vineyards is located in the Ballard Canyon area of Santa Ynez Valley near Solvang, Calif., and includes 34 acres of four Rhône varieties — Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Viognier — plus one block of Malvasia Bianca.
This year’s mid-May start of bloom is typical, Larner says. “Here in Santa Barbara County, we get a long hang time. Bloom can start at the beginning of May, and usually we don’t harvest until early November.”
He estimates that Santa Barbara County vineyards were at about 40 percent blooming in mid-May. Depending on variety, bloom lasts four to five days for Syrah, Mourvedre and Malvasia, to a week for Vigonier, and even longer for Grenache.
“In four of the last 10 years, we’ve seen our Syrah flower overnight beneath the Calyptra. Grenache is our biggest concern. Because it can take as long as a week and half to complete flowering, it’s more subject to any weather shift, resulting in shatter.”
As his vines began flowering, Larner was much less concerned about soil moisture levels than earlier in the season. By February, cover crops he had planted between the rows in non-sprinkled blocks were starting to fail due to lack of winter rains. The cover crop mix consisted of winter peas, bell beans, and oats. To retain as much nutrient value of these crops as possible, he incorporated them, and right after that, wet weather moved in.
“Throughout March and April, we had some very nice storms, with even rates of rain that were that were spread out and penetrated into the ground. We didn’t get any deluges that would cause erosion, and we were able to capture and hold water in the soil. We’ve had probably 9 or 10 inches of rainfall since November, but we’re still shy of the average 13 inches we normally have received by this time.”
The last significant rain on Larner Vineyards — half an inch or more — was mid-April. That was followed within a week by 90-degree temperatures, raising concerns about botrytis. Larner and his PCA remain on watch for the fungal disease, but so far, they’ve seen no need to treat for it or for powdery mildew.
The Powdery Mildew Risk Assessment Index was extremely low in early May, he say, but began climbing as temperatures rose into the 80s in the second week of the month.
“We’re coming off several rough powdery mildew years,” he says.”We’re keeping a close eye on our vineyards and are cautiously optimistic that we won’t have a lot of pressure from the disease this year.”
Typically, insects don’t pose much of a problem. Larner and his PCA are monitoring leafhoppers. He thought the amount of frost this past winter would have knocked them back.
“We have a fair number of adults,” he says. “At this point, we’re just eyeballing them. A high number of adults, which are laying eggs now, don’t necessarily mean a big problem later. It depends on how many of the crawlers hatch. If necessary, we’ll start treating for them around the middle of June.”