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San Francisco just had its driest February ever

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Feb. 29 isn’t until Saturday, but it can reliably be predicted now that no rain will fall before then in Northern California, making February, 2020 the first time since the 1860s that San Francisco and the Bay Area have had zero rainfall during the month. February typically accounts for about 20% of the average annual rainfall in San Francisco.

We had our infamous Drought in the years between 2011 and 2019, when the State officially declared an end to 376 weeks of below-normal rainfall. San Francisco actually ended up with pretty good rain in the 2018-2019 rainy season, which made people relieved that, finally, we could flush our toilets after #1 and not have to ration our garden-watering or time our showers. In December, 2019, at the start of the new (2019-2020) rainy season, things got off to a great start: nearly 5 inches of rain, well above normal, about 1/4 of our seasonal average. The Tahoe ski resorts exulted, and so did state water officials. January, 2020 also was pretty good for rain, but then came February, and Bam! Nothing. Not a drop, from wine country in the north through the Bay Area and San Jose down to Monterey.

It hasn’t just been dry. For human critters, February has been crazy warm. In the 43 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen such glorious weather in the middle of winter. Day after day of sunny, blue skies, super-clean air quality, and daytime temperatures in the high-60s to mid-70s (and 80 or higher in wine country). Keep in mind, San Francisco’s average high temperature in February is just 60 degrees, so we’ve been running 8-15 degrees above. Just to put it in context, it’s as if New York City this February saw a solid month of highs near 60 degrees. That would turn a few heads.

The reason for the aberrant weather is a large, persistent ridge of high pressure parked over the Eastern Pacific. It is effectively blocking storms from reaching Northern California; instead, the jet stream carries them up to Seattle or Southern Alaska or, in a few cases, they meander down to Los Angeles and Arizona. This is precisely the same weather pattern that gave us our last drought.

Meteorologists say it’s too early to predict whether February is just a one-off, or the beginning of a new drought. Supposedly, a little rain is forecast to possibly hit San Francisco this Sunday, but that would be March 1, thus preserving Feb. 2020 in the history books for no rainfall. Despite the dry month, our reservoirs are in good shape after the winter of 2018-2019, so nobody’s panicking yet, although the ski resorts are getting a little antsy.

The backdrop of every low rainfall year in California is, of course, the coming wildfire season. After the infernos of the last four years, nobody in the state is in a mood for another bad burn year. There’s a political dimension to this: Northern California’s biggest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been found guilty of (and has admitted to) inadvertently starting most of the big fires of recent years due to faulty equipment and poor maintenance. The company has had to declare bankruptcy, been fined billions of dollars to repay people who lost their homes, and is facing widespread calls to be taken over by the public—a move that is strongly resisted by PG&E’s worker unions.

Water or the lack of it, climate change, wildfires, mudslides, floods—it’s always something in California, and that doesn’t even take into account the earthquakes. The Big One is seriously overdue; everybody knows it; few are ready. I live on the Hayward Fault, which, while less known than the San Andreas Fault, actually poses a much greater risk, since it hasn’t snapped for 152 years. The Hayward runs down from San Pablo Bay (opposite the Carneros wine country) southeast through the densely-populated East Bay: Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland (my home town), Hayward, Milpitas and Fremont, and includes eastern Silicon Valley and north San Jose. On or alongside the Hayward Fault are scores of hospitals, schools, tunnels, dams, nursing homes, freeways, bridges and industrial parks, as well as millions of people packed closely together into cities and teeming suburbs. It’s literally unimaginable what a 7.2 magnitude on the Hayward would do. When—not if—it happens, it will make drought seem like a pesky inconvenience.


Here comes Winter

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The Bay Area—all of California, actually–has had the most exquisite weather for the last 3-1/2 months. I always complain about our “summers” because, let’s face it, “summertime” in San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley is no bargain. My body longs for warmth, but warm days are rare: Mark Twain’s alleged “coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” is most apt.

I mean, once the winter-spring rains cease (which in 2018-2019 didn’t happen until May), doesn’t one have the right to expect a spell of warm weather? However, we almost never get it, what with “June Gloom” and July fogs and winds that bring down a scent of glacial chill from the northwest. I can almost smell the Aleutians which, while 2,000 miles away, seem to heave their icy winds across the unbounded seas straight at us. July, frankly, can be a drag.

September and October have long been celebrated as our best months, weather-wise. But August can be iffy. If August follows July’s lead, August, too, continues the disappointment of no-summer. But in this year, 2019, we had the most beautiful August in my memory, which now spans 40 years of life here. Every day was more perfect than the previous. Temperatures of 80 degrees and more were common, with no humidity, under preternaturally blue skies, and hardly a hint of fog. Then came September, and the loveliness continued. Surely nowhere on Earth had better weather than we, in that now-gone month. In October, the days shortened, but remained glorious: shirtsleeves and shorts weather. This three-month spell of perfection—August, September, October—was intimidating, though, for I knew that it could not continue. Winter must come, finally, with its clouds, cold, winds, rain and, in the hills, snow.

So I greeted November with apprehension. Now here we are, with the month one-third over, and while summer is most definitively gone, the weather has remained tranquil. It’s cold in the mornings—cold for the Bay Area, anyway, with temperatures in the 30s in wine country, in the high 40s here in Oakland. But while the sun grows feebler with each tick of the clock until the equinox on Dec. 21, when it does rise low in the sky in the afternoon, one can take off the outerwear one dons for protection against the morning chill. One of my favorite places to enjoy afternoons is in the outdoor café of Whole Foods, which is wind-protected and gains the full impact of the afternoon sun.

No rain has fallen on us since last Spring. Well, we did have an oddball downpour in September, but it was from the remnants of a Pacific hurricane that drifted up through the Central Valley—not a rare occurrence in late summer or early autumn, but not really indicative of an early start to rainy season. The meteorologists are now saying that there’s no rain in the forecast as far out as they can see, which is about 15 days, so it may be that November is rainless. I knock on wood as I say that: we could have a real drencher by Nov. 30, and, after all, we always need the rain. My intellectual opposition to drought was always in constant battle with my animal love of dry warmth, during the drought years of 2011-2015; whenever it rained, I groaned, and Gus, even more than I, detests rain, and does his best to avoid going out in it. Not that he can: I am, after all, the Boss of this outfit. So he slinks along, tail between his rear legs, his ears droopy, with a hangdog look on his face.

So I’ll enjoy the dry weather as long as I can. December will be here soon enough: if it behaves as it has in the past, December will come howling into town with soaking rains and bone-chilling cold. By December, all hope of Indian summer will be vanquished. There is no Indian summer in December; winter arrives determinedly, planting its feet stubbornly on the land, and not prepared to recede until next May, or even June. And one thing I’ll never be able to figure out (as Mark Twain couldn’t, either): Why does a 44-degree winter day in San Francisco feel so much colder than a 17-degree day in Manhattan? It is, like much else in life, a mystery.

Have a lovely weekend!


The drought, all that monsoonal stuff, and El Nino. What’s going on?

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Have you noticed how much sub-tropical moisture we’ve had since May? It seems like once a week the remnants of some hurricane or tropical storm are blowing over us. We even had heavy rain. We always get a little of this stuff, which is known as the North American Monsoon, but this year it seems really dominant. Typically, Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico get the heavy summer rainfall associated with it; California, especially along the coast, doesn’t. This year represents a big shift.

Several winemakers have told me the same thing. So I asked my meteorologist friend, Steve Paulsen, who’s the morning weatherman on KTVU-TV, what’s up, and he replied: Not only do I think you and your friends are correct but I also feel we’ll see a lot more later this month and into September. Two different animals though. The ‘rain’ we had back on June 10th was the remains of Hurricane Blanca which came up from Baja. Monsoon moisture from AZ then made frequent visits throughout much of July. Then the remains of Hurricane Dolores brought torrential rain to SoCal. What we saw yesterday was the blow-off from Tropical Storm Guillermo. An unusual summer indeed. Very warm ocean temps.”

I’m not the only one who’s been impressed. Just yesterday, the California Weather Blog (CWB) reported that we’ve had [q]uite a few waves of monsoonal moisture [which] have brought intense mountain and desert thunderstorm activity, some of which has locally made it into the coastal plain and Central Valley.” (The coastal plain is, of course, wine country.) In fact, CWB called those remains of Hurricane Dolores that Steve referred to “the most significant California tropical remnant event in recent memory” and added this startling fact: “the official city of San Diego observation site recorded more rainfall in 3 days during July 2015 than during all previous months of July since at least the 1800s….combined.” And how’s this: “[A]lmost all of southern California experienced more rain during one weekend in July 2015 than did most of Northern California during the entire month of January 2015.” I need hardly remind my readers that summer is California’s dry season; the rain is supposed to fall in the winter and early spring.

I don’t know if this is related to climate change or global warming or what, but for those of us who’ve lived here for a long time, it’s really strange. Meteorologists are trained scientists; they don’t freak out easily, or say something’s “unusual” unless they really, really think it is. When we get century-long records being shattered, the weathermen sit up and take notice. And now, here comes what some people are calling a “monster” El Nino.

Wouldn’t it be bizarre if we went from extreme drought to floods and mudslides? But then, climate change by definition is giving the world bizarre weather patterns.

* * *

I just got my favorite wine store newsletter, from Kermit Lynch, and as always, I read through it. Wow, when did French wine prices get so high? I don’t mean Burgundy and Bordeaux, I mean everything. I used to drink a lot of Faugeres; now, Kermit has some for $72 a bottle! Yikes. We hear a lot about the French shooting themselves in the foot, price-wise, at least here in the States. I’m not saying the wine isn’t worth it, since I haven’t had it. I’m just boggled.


Another early harvest. Climate change?

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California has had so many “early harvests” lately that we’re going to have to redefine what the word “early” means. Maybe “early” is the new “normal.”

It seems like the last two years, 2013-2014, were mind-blowingly early. The 2013 vintage was “Early [with] exceptional quality vintage throughout the state,” said the Wine Institute.

Then, in 2014, Wine Spectator said that, in 2014, Everything was ready to go in early- to mid-August, even Cabernet Sauvignon, which usually ripens much later.”

And now, here comes 2015, “which is expected to arrive earlier than usual,” according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

That’s what I also heard last week, while walking through Andy Beckstoffer’s Georges III vineyard in Rutherford, where veraison had already started. Of course, all this comes amidst persistent reports of above-average temperatures in California. Just yesterday, it was reported that June was “the warmest ever for California,” as it also was for Nevada, Oregon and Washington. That simply extended this year’s trend: The entire West Coast, plus Nevada, just went through its warmest-ever January-June.

MAPAnd that was for the second year in a row! Last year, 2014, also was the warmest ever recorded up to then in California, Arizona, southern Nevada and parts of southern and coastal Oregon, according to NOAA.

You’d think statistics like these would be enough to convince the most die-hard climate-change denier, but there’s just enough anomalistic weather to keep them hoping against hope that their delusions are real. May, 2015, for example, was unusually wet and cool in California (actually, it helpfully slowed down the ripening)—but, even at that, May “was the first cooler-than-average month in well over a year for the state.” So when a climate-change denier, like Sen. Ted Cruz, declares that, “I believe in following evidence and data. On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate,” he would seem to be on increasingly shaky intellectual footing, and not abiding by his own rules for reasoned debate.

However, I’m not here to indulge in pretentious political-scientific jiggery-pokery (thank you, Justice Scalia!), merely to chat about our freaky weather. And now, here comes El Nino! We’ve heard rumors of its approach for years now—rumors that turned out not to be true. But for the last two weeks or so, the media increasingly has been rife with reports, such as this one, of “strong El Nino rainfall” this coming winter. Just yesterday, AccuWeather reported that it “could be one of the strongest in 50 years,” with all that that implies, especially powerful rains.

ElNino

In big El Nino years, California is drenched, wih L.A. sometimes having even more rain than NoCal. I vividly recall the January, 1995 storms, which brought “disastrous rainstorms throughout California,” said the USGS; poor Guerneville in particular, in the Russian River Valley, was hit hard, with people having to be airlifted off their roofs. We want El Nino’s rain, but we certainly don’t want the natural catastrophes. The problem is, usually the two can’t be separated. Fortunately, a lot of the river dwellers in Guerneville, bless them, put their houses up on stilts after 1995.


Climate, Santa Maria-style, and the vagaries of bizarre vintages

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It’s one thing to write or talk about how consistent the Santa Maria climate is. We all know about how the fog blows in in the evening and then melts away the following morning, giving way to turquoise skies.

All this is true, but to be here, as I am now and have visited frequently for the last 25 years, is to appreciate it anew. For an eastern-born boy, where the weather changes every 15 minutes, such invariability of the annual pattern is mind-blowing. Each year has two seasons, wet and dry; each day has two times, foggy and sunny. So it was when the mastodons roamed these parts, and so it is today.

Yesterday, Thursday morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. to an impenetrable ground fog. When I walked Gus I needed my hoodie. Even when the surface fog blew off at 8 a.m., the high clouds remained throughout the morning.

By 1 p.m., when I met Jonathan Nagy, Byron’s winemaker, for lunch in Los Alamos, the sky was cerulean blue, clear, infinite. The sun was strong and hot on the skin. Yet the day remained cool, never getting out of the 70s. Stand in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s hot. Move a corner into the shade and the breeze, and it’s cold. This is indeed the “refrigerated sunshine” that Hawk Wakawaka, I think it was, so aptly described. The vines, like us, to it are sensitive.

Like the rest of coastal California, the Santa Maria Valley had a dry, record warm winter. Then May came. I think, in the annals of California vintages, May of 2015 will have some renown, recounted by aging geezers around bars. It set records for chill and damp, just at a time when the plants thought it was all right to blossom. Budbreak had occurred early; May’s moisture posed the risk of widespread botrytis. Growers turned a hopeful eye towards June. This month, so far, has extended the pattern for weirdness. The rainfall of last Tuesday and Wednesday was epic, by mid-June standards. Thursday, when I wrote this, finally was warm (not hot), dry and breezy, ideal weather for blowing away water in the vines. But it’s still to early to assess whatever damage this bizarre June storm caused. Although I’m here in the Central Coast and not in close touch with the media, my understanding is that Wednesday’s rain in the North Coast set all kinds of records. In Oakland, it rained for the better part of a day, not heavily, but consistently. I can’t recall anything like that in June in the 36 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.

Viticulturalists—the folks who keep the vineyards healthy—are watching the skies. This has been an unsettling period for them. They know well that this is farming, and that farming never has absolutes when it comes to the weather. But even absent absolutes, they’ve come to expect at least some sort of pattern. But the pattern, alas, seems to be shattering before their very eyes. It may well have been warmer in January than in May. It may well have been wetter in June than in February. Unless you understand our climate, you cannot appreciate how insane these realities are.

As I reread what I wrote, I realize I’ve made it sound like all vintages are the same down here in the Santa Maria Valley. I do think that vintage variation here tends to be less than in more northern regions, like Carneros or Anderson Valley. Still, it exists, especially with wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, low-tannin varieties than transmit the terroir into the wines with high-tension precision. The problem in Santa Maria Valley is a cold year, like 2011. I’m hearing increasing comparisons between 2011 and 2015 from winemakers and growers, but I think it’s way too early to go there yet. July and August could continue this cool pattern; equally, they could be hot. Nobody has the slightest idea. Our most expert meteorologists are puzzled. Even with these increased predictions of a strong El Nino in 2015-2016, no one is willing to say what it means. More rain? Average rain? Will Southern California get more rain than Northern California? Will the drought continue, or won’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to find a weatherman who will say anything remotely specific about any of this. The only good news is that this recent rainfall has reduced the early danger of catastrophic wildfires. A blessing.

Have a wonderful weekend.


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