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California Wine Behind The Scenes: Bud Break in the Vineyards

California Wine Behind The Scenes: Bud Break in the Vineyards

by Guest Editor, Russ Briley, Publisher, The Santa Clarita Valley Signal

Every spring, vineyard managers rejoice as all of their grapevines come to life and the grape-growing cycle begins.

This first part of the growing cycle is called bud break. This stage starts around the beginning of March in the Northern Hemisphere and September in the Southern Hemisphere. The bud break begins when the temperature starts exceeding 50 degrees. Buds on the vine begin to swell and shoots and leaves begin to grow.

Although this is a joyous occasion, it is nervous time for vineyard managers. After bud break, the weather is monitored very closely as a change back to colder temperatures could spell doom for the vineyard. The concern is frost damage, which could wipe out an entire vineyard, or a part of it. Frost damage occurs when the temperature drops to 32 degrees and below.

In 2011 my wife and I were looking for Central Coast Pinot Noir grapes for the 2011 vintage and we thought this would be no problem. However, in 2011 many parts of the California Central Coast experienced a frost right after bud break. The frost damaged many vineyards and crop sizes were reduced by more than 60 percent in some cases. This creates havoc for big producers, and minuscule producers such as me are usually shut out or forced to pay prices that are typically out of reach. One California winery in 2010 quoted a price of $2,300 a ton. This same winery in 2011 quoted us a price of $6000 a ton.

Last year we visited the Finger Lakes wine region in New York and many wineries were very concerned because they have had very unusual warm winter temperatures. One vineyard manager took us out to the vines and showed us buds that were swelling. They were predicting a very early bud break, knowing that the cold weather could still be upon them.

In fact, they were predicting a very cold night the day after we left and many wineries were preparing their vines for frost protection. Many of them were using very large bales of tightly bound hay placed strategically around the vineyard. They set them on fire to warm the vineyard temperature.

In France, it is not uncommon to see 55-gallon drums at each row of vines. Fires are started in the drums and are tended throughout the night.

One of the most surprising frost prevention methods is used a lot. Vineyard managers spray the vines with water, which freezes and creates a coat of ice. The coat of ice protects the vines. This method works because a small space is created between the vine and ice. This insulation method works as long as the temperature does not fall below 28 degrees or the vines are not in this state for more than a few hours.

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