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Spring 2010: wet, cold


It’s raining again here in cloudy, wet Oakland, as it is in most of California from the Central Coast northward. It seems like this has been a really rainy winter, and it doesn’t want to stop. Not that I’m complaining. Well, maybe I am, a little — but the most common phrase this year has been “We need the water.” And we do, “we” being not just us humans, who consume it in the form of melted snowpack from the High Sierra mostly, but also the grapevines. Several winemakers have told me over the last two weeks that, despite all the rain, they were wishing for one or two more storms. Well, they’re getting what they asked for.

The season started out rainy and never stopped. Oakland got a record 3.86 inches back last Oct. 13, the “storm from hell” that sparked the infamous question, “Did you pick before or after the rains?” (For the record, Napa got 3.65 inches in that storm, while 3.16 inches poured down on the Sonoma County Airport.) In November, things dried out, but December turned wickedly cold and wet, a trend that has lasted until now.

By the time April comes to Northern California, your mind and body are prepared for Spring. Every flowering tree is in full bloom, the wildflowers lend a riot of color to the fields and hills, the robins are back, and even the fruit flies make their first appearance of the season. (Where do they live during the winter?) April holds the promise of six months of warm, sunny weather; April is the threshold of Paradise.

But this April has been a cruel tease. We had a day or two in the high 70s. But here are random notes from my Vintage Diary:

April 4: Cold, wet and windy.
April 7: More very cold weather, very wet and rainy.
April 10: The month continues to be very cold and wet.
April 22: The rain continues. Very, very cold.
April 28: Two consecutive days of rain.

The Oakland Airport weather station has had 19.75 inches of rain since last July 1 through today, which is 115% of the normal rainfall, 17.11 inches. The average precipitation for the season (which runs from July 1-June 30 every year) is 22.94 inches, so even though it feels like it’s been raining forever, we’re more than three inches below average. But we still have May to get through, a tricky month; the average precipitation here in May is less than an inch, but last May was very rainy, especially in the North Coast. We had big storms the first week of May, 2009, with totals up to 5 inches, and June was no picnic. My local weatherman called June, 2009 “the coldest June in 15 years.”

I’ve been noting ever since 2005 that the weather here in coastal California seems cooler than normal. That seems to be continuing. It may be that the Great Interior Basin (around the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) is heating up, as well as California’s Central Valley. That would create a lower pressure gradient that would suck in air from over the eastern Pacific, where the water temperature is always cold, cooling the coast before the air warmed up again on its way inland. Whatever the reason for our cooler weather along the coast, it’s good for the grapes and wine (unless you get hit by mold or rain or a frost). Cooler temps = longer hangtime = ripeness at lower brix = more flavor with lower alcohol. At least, that’s the theory.

Anyway the forecast for today is continued showers and even the possibility of thunderstorms. The longer range forecast calls for clearing and warmer after today. But Springtime in California, like I said, can be a tease.

  1. Steve,
    So far, it appears there is an above average number of clusters out there, depending on the region. Combine that with a full soil water profile and we’re in for a big crop (assuming good bloom, set and a cool season). The wines could be nice, but let’s hope the crop is not a barn buster!

  2. This year, the vineyards are a bit behind. Photosynthesis doesn’t really start going till the ground warms up and the ground warms when the ground dries out. I’m about two weeks behind as of yet and expect the ground to stay moist till early June. Probably will disk every row this May instead of every other. Helps get the top soil open and dry out. I’ve noticed much more slug and nematode presence this spring. They won’t die back till the ground gets hot.

    Let’s hope there’s not too much coastal fog during the summer months… and let’s really hope there’s no early rain like last October. This year is a year which will award those who work the vineyards (pull leaves, thin fruit and deficit irrigate) and then harvest on time.

  3. You have an acute sense of temperature variation, Steve! Coastal regions from the south-central coast to the Oregon border are running generally slightly below normal (with some solidly below normal) over the past 36 months, while much of the state’s interior is well above average. Here’s a great graphic for the period 4/27/07-4/26/10:

  4. I hit the weather exactly right for my Napa/Sonoma visit- got in Wednesday night and left yesterday morning. It was sunny and in the low 70’s my entire trip. Finally something goes right!

  5. Matt, this time of the year timing is everything!

  6. Casey Hartlip says:

    Up here in central Mendocino County we’re hoping this is about over and can get these vines growing. We’re quite late from a historical perspective and with as cold and wet as the soils are these vines aren’t going to take off when the weather warms. It kind of feels like 1998 when it stayed wet and cold late into the spring. That year also had a huge crop and very cool weather all season. We’re planning on adjusting our crop levels this season so that we’re not carrying too much fruit in what could be a short season.

    Yep, I was one of the ones hoping for a good wet winter for the overall health of California, but how about a little sun please!

  7. Pretty much the same up here as the weather goes, cold, wet, and so far a slow growing season. We are behind from the last two years, bud break was a little early but then all the vines just stalled out. We have recorded over 50 inches of rain here since October – with all that soil moisture the vines are primed to explode, if the temperatures heat up next week we are gonna get massive growth and looks to be a pretty big crop, which will need major thinning to balance properly. All of which means lots of work in the vineyard, Yippie!

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