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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.


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.


Tasting with Cal MBAs, and news on the California drought

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I’m setting up my annual tasting for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, which this year will be on April 9. This is one of my favorite tastings because the students—future MBAs who are members of the school’s wine club—are totally into wine. They’re a smart, curious bunch, eager to learn, and they ask the best questions.

When you’re the speaker or moderator at a wine seminar, it’s always nice to have an audience that works with you, instead of just sitting there expecting you to do all the heavy lifting. A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar in San Francisco, on high-altitude wines. One of the moderators was a winemaker. It was a very interesting topic, and I had lots of questions, so I raised my hand often to ask—probably more so than any of the other 50 or 60 people in the audience. I’m not shy about such things! Afterwards, I went up to the winemaker to pay my respects, and the first thing he did was to thank me for asking so many questions! I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been on panels where the audience was like Forest Lawn Cemetary. Not fun! So if I’m in any position to offer advice, it would be: Next time you’re in the audience at a winetasting and they permit questions, raise that hand! Participate! We’re all in this together.

* * *

I’m sure we’re still officially in a drought, but we had a lot of rain in March and even some good storms in February, after the driest December-January in recorded history, which got the media buzzing about the D-word. Downtown San Francisco got nearly an inch of rain during this most recent storm (yesterday), which puts it at 51% of normal. Other cities are doing better. Calistoga is up to 83% of normal as of yesterday, if this chart from the San Francisco Chronicle can be believed. Santa Rosa got .53 of an inch yesterday, bringing the annual average up to about half. This storm hasn’t yet hit the Central Coast, where the water situation is really dire, but the National Weather Service is predicting it will, although the amount of precipitation doesn’t appear to be very great. So the area from Paso Robles down through Santa Barbara really does need rain, badly. We can only hope they get it before the rainy season is over.

At any rate, this morning’s Chronicle says that despite yesterday’s hefty soaking, recent dowmpours “fall far short of ending [the] crisis.” The Sierra Madre Mountains, it says—which is where most of California’s summertime water comes from, via snowmelt—are still at only 29 percent of historical normal, meaning Monday’s thunder, lightning and heavy rain were “too little and too late to have much impact on this year’s severe drought.”

However, others are seeing a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. “The trend is improving,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. That’s because the recent storms have been so soaking that “you’re looking at a lot of run-off…into the reservoirs.” For instance, Lake Sonoma, which sits at the top of Dry Creek Valley, now is at 74 percent capacity.

The rain is over, for now, and, as is typical of big winter storms moving through California, the temperature is expected to plummet as the cold front passes. It’s quite cold this morning (as I write), meaning that vintners have a new fear in mind, beyond the drought: “when these storms come through and then stop, there’s cold storms from the north and you’ve got to watch your frost protection,” the Press Democrat quoted an Alexander Valley vineyard manager as saying. Since so many wineries depend on overhead sprinklers for frost protection, if we do end up with a spurt of below-freezing mornings, vintners may be in for a real challenge.


After big rain, wine country dodges a bullet

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This week’s forecast of warm temperatures, dry, sunny weather and above all gusty breezes is made to order for Northern California winegrowers who got a scary soaking on Saturday morning.

Precipitation records fell all over the place. Oakland Airport got nearly an inch of rain, smashing the old record. Mount St. Helena, at the head of Napa Valley, got an inch. As usual, the first rainfall of the season caught drivers unaware: there were accidents everywhere. This was the region’s first real storm since last January, and it came earlier than heavy rain usually comes.

What impact did the rain have on the grapes? As usual, I asked my Facebook friends. Here’s what they said.

While the drops were still falling, the mood was gloomy. “As a farmer/winemaker, [I am] not happy,” said a Spring Mountain vintner. “Scared to death for Petite Sirah,” replied a Sonoman, concerned about the potential for rot in that varietal’s tightly-clustered bunches. A Sonoma Coast winemaker wrote, “Glad I don’t grow Petite. Most Sonoma Coast Pinot is in the barn. All the Bordeaux always have to ride a storm before they get picked, them’s the rules, right?” Right. From down south in Paso (by which the storm had largely petered out), came this reply: “It’s not good for grapes when this happens.”

As morning rain gave way to parting clouds and even warm sun by Saturday afternoon, vintners got more perspective, and were able to put the drenching into context. “Rinse the dust over the canopy to give the vines a boost!” wrote a Sonoma vintner. A Rutherford winemaker predicted, “What we will do is leaf the cluster zone to favor air flow and dry it as fast as possible,” referring to the classic method of allowing mold-producing moisture to evaporate. A Pinot grower with vineyards in Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley must have seen the long-range forecast when he wrote, “It’s been quite windy this afternoon, and is supposed to continue to be very windy for the next couple days…that should help the situation a lot.”

What is that long-range forecast? Here’s from yesterday’s Napa Valley Register.  Nice to see all those yellow suns lined up. Warm, sunny weather for at least the next nine days.

So the rain was unusual, and caused some pulse-thumping moments, but should end up being largely meaningless. The only one of my Facebook friends I’ll quote by name here is Mitch Cosentino, at PureCru Wines, whose long reply aptly sums up the situation. “This is my 34th harvest. I was more concerned about my tomatoes in my garden. We had 0.8 in Napa city area. After the rain, it was pretty windy before sundown (which was good). There should be no effect at all on Cab Sauv or Cab Franc. In fact it could help show down and spread out the harvest a bit because everything was getting a bit jammed up. Pinots should be fine. People in Burgundy would laugh at anyone with any concern with one day of rain. If there is any really ripe Sauv Blanc still out there that could have some issues. Ripe Zinfandels could have problems but not likely with it being only one day and breezy mid 70s predicted for the next few days. We have had a beautiful growing season one day is just a day off. Everyone relax, it is going to be a great vintage.”


Tuesday Twaddle: weird weather, a speaking engagement

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The 2011 growing conditions are starting out eerily like notorious 2010, when “summer never came.” Winter was long, wet and cold. We had a couple of warm days in April, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then, it’s been nothing but cool, abnormally so. And now, rain.

Significant quantities of rain and hail and even snow at higher elevations (3,000 feet) fell overnight, particularly in the North Country, with rain expected to move south today. This is really crazy for the middle of May–and it’s not over. Rain will pick up in the Central Valley today, and move into L.A. on Wednesday, as a deep trough more typical of January cuts through the West. The National Weather Service yesterday said “winter-like weather will return to Northern California later this afternoon and tonight. Periods of heavy snow will likely redevelop across the northern Sierra Nevada this evening.”

By Thursday, fortunately, it should all be over. But what will the damage be to tender young grapeshoots?

And the extent of the April 8-10 freeze, when temperatures plunged as low as 24 degrees in the Central Coast, is becoming clearer. I was in Paso Robles last Friday, and it was the main topic of conversation. Paso Robles, southern Monterey and the Santa Ynez Valley were especially hard hit. The Western Farm Press reported that “Damage is unquestionably extensive”; several people told me that the Paso Robles crop has been wiped out by 50%. A local radio station reported that, of 25,000 planted acres in Paso Robles, “about 15 to 20,000 acres of those were affected at some level by the frost.” I can scarcely believe the quantity of blasted fruit is that high; maybe it is. There are reports that some wineries in Paso’s western hills will produce no crop this year. I asked a grower about secondary crop. He replied, in effect, don’t count on it.

I know nobody wants to hear about 2011 being as weird as last year, but why shouldn’t it be? Every vintage since 2005 has been cooler than the one before it. We thought 2008 was cool (despite the wildfires) and then came 2009. Then came 2010, the coldest year in memory. People are still freaked out by it. So far, 2011 is showing no sign of being any different.

* * *

I speak today at the International Special Events Society, which is meeting in Sonoma County. They asked me to talk about trends in the wine world. I plan on mentioning the different values and outlooks between Boomers, on the one hand, and Millennials and Gen Xers, on the other; the search for value; a movement toward lower alcohol levels in wine; new negociant models; a spate of M&As in California; social media, and a boom in the acreage of “alternative varieties.” Maybe one or two other things will occur to me. I don’t like to be too prepared when I speak to groups. I like things loosey-goosey. It’s more interesting when nobody, including me, knows what’s going to happen. I like to encourage questions and comments. Good feedback, even disagreement, from listeners inspires me; it makes me say things that surprise myself, things I didn’t even know I knew. Unfortunately, the drive up to Sonoma is likely to be a drag, with all the rain and fender benders. More tomorrow.


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