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When will winter arrive?

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If you live in Northern California, it’s been topic #1 for the last 2 months: Cold nights, mild to warm days and barely a drop of rain. December was the second driest in modern times, and so far, January hasn’t seen a single drop of the wet stuff.

It’s been so dry that people are starting to use the “d” word, as in drought.

This comes on the heels of heavy rains last October, which had everybody fretting about the vintage, and worried about a repeat of the 2010-2011 winter, which was extraordinarily wet. No luck. In my vintage diary, I noted only two instances of precipation in December: once on the 12th (“very, very light”) and again on the 30th (“Light rain, less than 1/10th of an inch”). Other than that, nada.

This map from NOAA suggests visually how severe things have been, with all of Northern California north of the Central Coast in the red “Drought to persist or intensify” part.

It’s an increasingly important story, and scientists are starting to express something akin to alarm. The Sacramento Bee quoted California’s chief hydrologist: “It just hangs on and on and on,” he said, referring to the high pressure system that won’t budge, sending storms to the north and south of us. KQED-FM today featured a top NASA climatologist and an official from the California Department of Water Resources, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say you could hear extreme concern in their voices. The Water Resources lady reminded us that the absence of precipitation doesn’t mean only that reservoirs are under pressure; actually, they’re in pretty good shape, thanks to last year’s snowmelt from the Sierra. No, the immediate problem is in industries that rely on instant water from the sky, such as grazing. Cattle need to eat pasture grasses. With no rain, the winter grasses are drying up. Bloomberg News today reported “short-term Severe Drought” in parts of California, “as impacts to forage conditions in rangeland areas are significant.” Not only that: “Wildland fire awareness is increasing in California as well.”

Wildfires in January?

There are implications for grapes, too. “…if the warm, dry spell continues, it could cause an ‘early bloom’ on apple trees and grapevines, exposing the tender green plant tissue to possible frost damage,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

But change might finally be coming. Just yesterday, the weather people are saying the pattern could break by next week, with “significant changes in flow over the Eastern Pacific” that “should allow a series of storm systems to track across the North State.” That’s great news for crops and water supplies, and I know I should be glad. But in a way, I’m sad. It’s been so great enjoying the Springlike weather. In Oakland, when you get in a sunny place out of the wind around 2 p.m. (the warmest part of the day), it actually feels hot on your skin, like summer. Gus has been loving it. He doesn’t like rain. Neither do I. But we’ll be thankful when Old Man Winter returns.

  1. How ever do wine regions deal with adverse conditions that vary from vintage to vintage!?!?! Oh, wait. Every other wine region in the world deals with it…

  2. raley roger says:

    Steve,
    Thanks for bringing this up. I know a lot of us in the business are worried that the vines just don’t have an opportunity for dormancy this year. My sense is that they’ll start pushing much too soon and that we’ll have major frost damage as a result. A mixed blessing, to be sure……lots of folks still have wine in the pipeline from the last couple of vintages, so maybe lower yields will be a blessing for them. But, for negociants and virtual winemakers (the little guys who don’t have their own wineries and vineyards and rely on others for fruit sourcing), in particular, this could be a troublesome year.

    Colorado Wine News: You wouldn’t be so smug if feeding your family depended on this coming vintage.

  3. The California vintage will be fine. Sure it might not have the highest yields, but it won’t be the end of the world. California makes great wine every year because it has great weather every (almost) year. Try growing grapes in Colorado where 50% of the states vines were killed to the ground last winter…

  4. It is sort of ironic that you write about this topic on the day that winter finally asserted itself here in the mid-west (Ohio). We have had weeks in the 50′s when normally we would be in the 30′s during the beginning of January. Then last night we had wind chills of 0ºF or below and several inches of snow and ice. People were starting to doubt us having a real winter and I know that several mid-west ice wine producers had grapes drop off the vines before it was cold enough to harvest.

  5. Unfortunately, NOAA tells us: La Niña conditions are present across the equatorial Pacific.

    • Sea surface temperatures (SST) were at least 0.5°C below average across much of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean.

    • Atmospheric circulation anomalies are consistent with La Niña.

    • La Niña is expected to continue into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2012.

    Too often, La Niña means dry up here. On one hand we need the rain. On the other it would be nice to get into a cycle of early budbreak and earlier harvest.

  6. Wildfires in January seems like a crazy concept….until I walk outside the cellar here in Santa Clara Valley and I’m sweating and getting a tan.

    Hoping for rain soon!

  7. I am a winemaker and a passionate snowboarder…so I have 2 horses in the race here…according to the snow forecasting sites, a major pattern change is in the works so hopefully we will get some powder (and base!) and rain!! And, after several years of later and later harvests, I would not mind getting everything into the barrels by the end of September

    And Colorado…that is why we all do not move there to make wine! Although the skiing is better there than here, at least this year!

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