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Our unusual weather: Climate change, or just random?


If you live in California you’re wondering the same thing as everybody else: What the heck is up with this weather?

We all know that last year, 2010, was the Year Without Summer. Now, 2011 is shaping up to be a repeat. In fact, the West Coast is now in the seventh year of a below-normal temperature pattern.

Here are selected notes from my 2011 Vintage Diary:

March 22
December was very, very cold, as were the first 2 weeks or so of January. The we had three weeks of gloriously warm, record-setting dry weather. February turned cooler, but not cold, with average rainfall. Now March continues the mild temperatures, but it has been very rainy.

April 22
The last several weeks have been gloomy as hell. Lots of cool, cloudy days.

May 10
There was extensive frost damage last month.

May 14
I was in Paso Robles yerterday and was told of crop losses there from the April 8-9 freeze approaching 50% appellation-wide.

May 15
Very cold and windy today. Widely scattered showers since last night, some of them heavy.

May 16
“This will not be light.” My friend Steve Paulsen [meteorologist, Channel 2], predicting the storm blowing in today.

Monday, May 23
Continues very chilly with temps well below normal, and now–more rain 2 days from now.

Wed. May 25

Rain in the North Bay. More rain predicted for Friday. [later] Steady light to moderate rain in Oakland. Wine country must be getting drenched. Very cold, temps 15-20 degrees below normal. Cloudy. Widespread scattered showers. From Natl. Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, the 10 day forecast: “THE TROUGH FORECAST OVER THE WESTERN CONUS [continental U.S.] IS EXPECTED TO LEAD TO ENHANCED  PROBABILITIES FOR ABOVE MEDIAN PRECIPITATION FOR PARTS OF THE PACIFIC  NORTHWEST [and] NORTHERN CALIFORNIA” with below normal temperatures.

Sat. May 28
Chilly, very windy and showery. Storms to the north.
Evening: Steady rain.

Tues. May 31
Rain today throughout North coast. Half inch already has fallen. Temps 10-15 degrees below average esp. inland. “By Friday night another system. This one will be stronger, maybe widespread rain as we approach the weekend.” Steve Paulsen.

And now, this morning, the new ten day forecast calls for thundershowers this Saturday and more showers for Sunday, with temperatures next week continuing well below normal–more like January than June.

How all this is impacting the grapes, I don’t know. Some say that because Spring was so cool, budbreak was late, lessening the rain’s impact. But the threat of grapevine diseases has to be making some growers antsy. I suspect they’re breaking out the sulfur up and down the State. I wonder how long it’s going to be before the meteorological community declares that the West Coast of the United States is entering a Little Ice Age.

  1. As long as it stays cold, mildew pressure will remain low.

  2. Yes, this is unusual, but not without precedent. Last year was late also for us with rain on May 31st.

    Probably have to look at larger cycles: 1949, 1967, 1998, etc.

    This is not to say that industrial civilizations C02 production is not having an over all impact on climate.

  3. Really wet today, feels like January.

  4. Tom Wark says:

    At this moment is is raining as hard in Napa has I have seen it all winter…Including hail. What the F. is going on here???

  5. Major burst of hail and heavy winter rain in Suisun Valley mid AM. Sun out and hail still on ground. Vines are in bloom, nothing good about this, but by time we get to harvest (if we do) everyone will be claiming best vintage ever,SOP

  6. Torrential downpour today is not good for the newly forming flowers on our vines.

  7. WOW, is this ugly. Brief but heavy rain this morning here in Healdsburg bodes serious repercussions. The vines are running late but half of my 11 varieties are well into bloom — Sangio, Merlot, Cab F, Malbec, P N. The prospects for continuing rain will likely get the rest of them. It looks like a lot of shot berries and a short crop are in store for many of us.
    I though last year was bad. It’s cold and wet out there!
    Global warming??

  8. Rob told me this morning that this spring reminds him of 1998. The vines are about to bloom. Merlot is almost at 50% bloom here. If it doesn’t stop raining and warm up soon, the lack of uniformity and uneven ripening in clusters would be terrible.

  9. We need to move away from the term Global Warming and start calling it what I believe it is, which is Climate Change. The weather is strange all around, not just here.

  10. Agree with Beth. It’s climate change. It will hotter in some places, colder in others. Ditto for drier and wetter.

  11. kelkeagy says:

    I had lunch with Elizabeth today and she say’s that at this point it could affect quantity, but we haven’t gotten into quality being affected yet. Fingers crossed that this is the last storm of the season.

  12. ECVineyards says:

    Come on people. The climate is always changing. I’m not old enough, but does anyone remember the “mini ice age” of the 1950s? And what happened to the “Coming Ice Age” Newsweek or Time headline in the 70s? Data has shown that the earth has not warmed in the last 10 years and we have done nothing but increase our “greenhouse gases”.

    It is not “Climate Change”, “Global Warming”, nor “Random Weather”. It is cyclical. Plain and simple.

  13. passionate about wine says:

    Can you send some to Texas?

  14. Bunches larger than usual owing to over 40 inches of rain so far. No bloom as yet and we’re about four weeks behind normal.
    65 degrees and cloudy today. Our vineyard recorder from Richard Brockmeyer has shown a cooling trend/cycle for the past three years here on the Yosemite Coast.

  15. Climatologists have noted that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation has been switching to a “cool phase” from the warm phase present from the ’70s through the middle of the last decade. The last cool phase lasted from around WWII to the mid ’70s. In the cool phase cooler water is present in the eastern north pacific ocean and warmer water sits in the west. The warm phase sees a reverse of this.
    If predictions are correct, we could be in for about 30 years of generally cooler, wetter weather on the pacific coast…

  16. Thanks for the info Kurt…good weather for skiing (I am going to get some powder this weekend as a matter of fact!) but maybe bad for wine. Oh well. In terms of this weather representing climate change, here is an excerpt from todays NWS forecast discussion: “…TEMPERATURES GENERALLY 15 TO 30 DEGREES BELOW NORMAL WITH NEAR RECORD TO RECORD LOW MAXIMUM TEMPERATURES FOR JUNE 1ST WITH REDDING A MAXIMUM TEMPERATURE OF 57 SO FAR TODAY WITH A RECORD LOW MAXIMUM OF 59 SET IN 1898…60 WITH A RECORD OF 54 SET IN 1884 AT RED BLUFF…62 TYING THE RECORD FROM 1967 AT DOWNTOWN SACRAMENTO…59 WITH A RECORD OF 64 SET IN 1967 AT SACRAMENTO EXECUTIVE AIRPORT…64 WITH A RECORD OF 62 IN 1967 AT STOCKTON…64 WITH A RECORD OF 60 IN 1967 AT MODESTO…AND 37 WITH A RECORD OF 38 IN 1967 AT BLUE CANYON…” Not much man made atmospheric CO2 in 1898 and a lot less than today in 1967. Food for thought….

  17. don’t jinx us, man! how about calling it the “year w/o Spring” since that’s were we are to date, there’s still hope for summer…oh please, let there be a good summer, and a long, warm, rainless autumn….

  18. We’re eating braises and stews and drinking winter-weight reds. My ‘cue is still waiting to be lit up, but at least we’re not living near the the Mississippi river or close to Joplin Missouri!

  19. I wonder how many decades of cool weather will be necessary to debunk the myth of anthropogenic/manmade global warming (AGW).
    It won’t be easy anyway. Subliminally forecasting the “end of times”, the IPCC receives US$ 13 million per year exclusively from the US federal government, and received, in the 2000-2010 period, more than US$ 2 billion from private foundations under the AGW’s rubric.

  20. gordon hill says:

    Were living the same dream in Washington, raining again today and all weekend in our desert climate.

  21. David Schildknecht says:

    Just to clarify, the piece of mine to which you refer (a column that appeared in The World of Fine Wine) – leaving completely aside whether or not it was “stuffy” or “standard stuff” – dealt with a prevalent tendency to take the emphasis on terroir to a point where, to quote my lead sentence (as you did in part):

    “As if captured by terroirist crews, vintners are increasingly in thrall to the notion of cru. When vineyard classification becomes epidemic; when that bastion of blends, Champagne, or one-time heartland of terroir denial, Northern California, champion site-specificity, a paradigm shift has clearly occurred. An obvious thing to say if your perspective is that of the Mosel or Burgundy: ‘What took you so long to get it?’ A cynic might equally obviously observe that today ‘terroir sells.'”

    My point, then, had to do with taking the concept of privileged microclimate or cru to a possibly self-defeating extreme – which is why I titled it “Captives of the Cru” – and as such it was an attempt to put the brakes on a possibly runaway terroir train.

    I singled-out an old interview with Tony Soter because it highlights the tension between the goal of making the most complex wine one thinks possible and the goal of making a wine that (at least allegedly) reflects in flavor the character of a particular site. This is a tension that seems to me implicit in wine making practices for most of the last century and all across the globe, but which doesn’t get much talked-about. (For a paradigmatic example, just compare France’s two most famous wines – Bordeaux and Burgundy – as they have evolved over the past hundred or so years.) In late-20th century French wine growing tradition, I cite the Chave paradigm – highly influential outside France, too – of blending across sites, in order to try to demonstrate that the tension Soter describes resolves itself provided you don’t carry the notion of cru to an extreme level of specificity. Blending across sites and microclimates makes for a more complex and aesthetically satisfying wine, but that doesn’t mean the result fails to reflect a place, in this instance the Hermitage Hill.

    Having had the privilege to taste great California wines from and ’60s and ’70s – in fact, it was tasting a trio of young 1968 Napa Cabernets (as I have many times before written) that inspired me to a career in wine – and to eventually meet many of the pioneers who were responsible for them, I am well aware that like any wine growers who achieve greatness, they placed great importance on site selection. But my column was about how the eventual wine is blended and then marketed. And here, single vineyard identity or the selling of wine by means of the terroir “sizzle” was prized by a few (e.g. Al Braunstein, Bennion & Draper) but most preferred to emphasize their blending skills, and many of the finest Napa Cabernets were quite widely-sourced. (Many still are, including such quality benchmarks as one of my own long-time favorites, Cathy Corison’s – and of course it’s true that Cathy was influenced by Tony Soter.)

    As to my use in this context of “terroir denial,” there are still legions of wine professionals including those tasked with and paid large sums to assist winery owners in site selection and vine care who are in an important sense terroir deniers, that is, they are unwilling to accept the notion that soil type has a direct influence on the aromas and flavors of the resultant wine. I do think that it is ultimately, at some level, contradictory to emphasize the importance of site in terms of achieving certain quantifiable results such as yields, optimum sugar, acid, and pH levels yet to deny soil a qualitative role in flavor. But all you have to do is talk to people like Australian soil scientist Robert White; viticulturalist Richard Smart; or geologist and site selection advisor Johnathan Swinchatt – quite possibly the three internationally most influential experts in their respective fields – to discover how deep skepticism about terroir runs. (I made discussions with these people and of this issue the subject of another column.) And the legions of skeptics tend to be disproportionally non-European, just as the legions of wine folk who seem willing to credit the soil with almost mysterious powers or who accept terroir as an act of faith rather than a subject amenable to scientific scrutiny tend to be disproportionally “Old World.”

    What I also had in mind with the phrase “terroir denial” was the revolution that I have witnessed during my long career in the marketing California wine. I started out selling wine in 1978, and for at least the next dozen years – naturally, with allowing for exceptions such as Diamond Creek and Ridge – the emphasis in marketing California wine was on the talents of the winemaker and the extent to which clement weather guaranteed ripe fruit. I’m sorry that I don’t have a collection of advertisements or other old winery promotional literature I can call upon to supply a lot of examples, but the significance of soil and microclimate was virtually ignored, and to the extent terroir or soil were referenced, this was to point to their being the conceptual refuges of European growers who had the misfortune of only being able to get their fruit ripe in some years but not others and/or who wanted to elevate flaws or the absence of pure fruit to a virtue. So yes, California marketing in those days largely ignored or pooh-poohed terroir. And it’s not as though this were an entirely baleful thing. California did much to help teach the rest of the world to more highly value homogeneous fruit ripeness; fault-free vinification; and the role of the “wine maker” (a concept that didn’t even exist in most wine cultures before the late 20th century). Anyway, now – as I tried to claim – the pendulum has swung to an opposite extreme in its focus on selling the concept of cru and terroir.

    Just to site one especially obvious illustration of my point, the 1983 article debunking “terroir” by Bill Jekel in the UK magazine Decanter and the subsequent debate in those pages between him and Bruno Pratts was one of the most-discussed and further written-about topics by wine commentators of the day. Exactly 10 years later (here I actually saved and so am refreshing my memory with a full-page color ad from Wine & Spirits magazine, copyright Jekel Vineyards, 1993) a color photo of rocks takes up 80% of the page in a Jekel advertisement whose text seeks to assure readers that “gritt [sic.] and stone” build “depth of character” in the resultant wines.

    Jekel’s Pauline conversion is simply symptomatic, though I grant one would have to research old advertisements, wine journals, and winery literature to make this historical point convincingly – a bit of research I’ll try to undertake one of these days. During the 1970s and 1980s, famous single-vineyard wines were often marketed without emphasis on the importance of site. If you ever got into a verbal jousting match with the “maker” of Martha’s Vineyard on this subject as I recall having had when he visited my DC shop in the early ’80s, you would have been left in no doubt about the relative importance of man versus site. Or consider that pioneer in Californian Pinot Noir, Hanzell. Their promotional emphasis was on the source of their vines and the allegedly “Burgundian” cellar methods. In reality, Brad Webb’s methods and equipment were quite innovative and had little to do with Burgundy but had simply, literally, been clothed by owner James Zellerbach in a Burgundian “look” by replicating the Medieval Clos Vougeot press house.

    Most of what you wrote seems poorly-informed about my positions on terroir which – whether or not they are either novel or ultimately defensible – have certainly been a focus of my writing for more than a decade, and simply beside the point of the article from which you quoted.

  22. Oh there’s no questions it’s “Climate Change,” which is the same thing that’s been happening on the Earth for millions of years and will continue to. To presume that the climate has been consistent in the past and/or shouldn’t change in unpredictable ways in the future requires willfully ignoring meteorological history…

  23. What do these things have in common…..

    Santa Claus
    Easter Bunny
    Man-made global warming
    Peter Pan
    The Invisible Man
    Left Handed wrench
    Man-made global warming
    anorexic sumo wrestlers
    Star Trek transporter
    Man-made global warming

  24. My daughter in NYC is sweltering while out here in Green Valley I’m still building fires to stay warm. Won’t even consider planting tomatoes this year, last year they never made it. Climate change, is it a result of human intervention or just a un/natural cycle change? If we look around the country, the weather has created havoc everywhere – tornadoes, floods, and of course, earthquakes around the globe. Is this the year that will keep on giving us weather/whether challenges? No summer last year was no fun. Would love some sun. Though I can say this, every day with rain we’ve also had a lot of sunshine – rainbow weather.

  25. Paul Dolan says:

    I would suggest you reach out to Greg Jones.
    His family is in grape growing and he is the most knowledgable climatologist we have in the wine industry relative to grapes, wine and climate.

  26. Beth, of course its called climate change.Up here on Vancouver Island we are also suffering with rain and cold weather. We need sun and we need it now. Otherwise, similar to last year, the island wineries will not be picking to many grapes come fall. Have a look at my archived blog entry and my take on all this.

  27. Worse still, what happened to the (unwritten) pact that says “we’ll suffer the extremely high California real estate costs in exchange for consistently great weather”? I didn’t sign up for only 2 mos of summer…where do I get my refund?

  28. Mark: lol. I never saw that rider when I bought my house.

  29. rochelle says:

    I’ve been posting the most up to date agricultural news and am frustrated. Yes, our weather is wonky! My friend is an airline mechanic and I noticed that over the past 2 years, commercial flights have com-trails that blanket our skies at a far lower level than any previous time. I asked him if they are using new additives. He said YES. Apparently, fuel tanks and lines get mildew and a mildew preventative has been added. Our skies cloud up so easily and this blocks the photons from striking the surface of our Earth. Does this have an environmental impact? Doesn’t everything we do?
    Anyway, I’m concerned for our agricultural yields here in California, our berries, our nuts, most especially our almonds which is our number one agricultural GDP but relies upon honey bees for pollination. This brings me to healthy bee hive activity. What does our current weather mean for our bees? Anyone want to chat about this?

  30. Very interesting year throughout california. I was in burgundy in mid may and growers were talking about the month or so of fairly warm weather they had been having and the lack of rain,everyone I spoke to was very worried because of the lack of rain. Should be another late year for coastal vineyards in california. I am not having nearly as much fog as last year, however a great deal of more wind. Flowering has yet to really begin at our vineyard so I am crossing my fingers that the storms will clear out the clouds and marine layer and give us some consistent warm weather and less wind!

  31. We are in the high 90s here in New Orleans with 80% humidity and no rain for 2 months. Rainfall was .30 in April and .49 in May, making 2011 the second driest year in Louisiana on record. Why aren’t more people talking about this?

  32. Sarah, as an avid Weather Channel watcher, I’m aware of the severe brought in your part of the country.

  33. Mr., forecast for next week is drying out, sunny and much warmer.

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