At the beginning of April, Santa Barbara County wine grape grower Bob Baehner was far more encouraged about his crop prospects this season than last. That’s when four years of drought severely limited his normal grape production, decreasing it from around 1.5 to 2 tons per acre to less than half a ton per acre.
“We didn’t get the El Nino rain totals we were expecting this past winter,” he says. “But, so far, we’ve had what’s considered to be a normal amount, and the vines have responded very well. I’m really pleased with how the vineyard is looking.”
Bob and his wife, Vickie Fournier Baehner, grow five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot, which they planted in 2001. Situated at an elevation of 1,000 feet on a hill side overlooking the eastern Santa Ynez Valley and surrounded by oak trees, chaparral and purple sage, their vineyard is within the newly-established Los Olivos District AVA. The majority of grapes grown here are Bordeaux varieties, Bob notes.
The oldest of Santa Barbara County’s wine-growing areas, the Los Olivos District includes more than 50 vineyards and 13 wineries. Lying roughly 30 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, their location is prone to windy conditions with summer temperatures typically ranging into the high 90s during the day and cooling down to the 60s at night.
The Baehners produce about 20 barrels of wine annually. They bottle three wine types or pure varietals of each grape variety plus a Bordeaux blend, called V3, under their Baehner Fournier Vineyards label.
The three varieties they grow have proven to be good choices.
“Even though our operation is on the micro side, we’ve had very good success, including silver, gold and double gold awards, in various state and international wine competitions here in California over the years,” Bob says. “Recently, our V3 Bordeaux blend earned a 92 rating from an international wine critic.”
Bud break began this season for the Baehners in the first week of March in their Merlot blocks. That was followed by their Cabernet Sauvignon and then their Petite Verdot vines. By the first of April, shoots had grown to about 2 inches in length.
“In terms of leaf quality, number of peduncles being formed and production of buds for next year’s crop, the vines are looking the best they have in five years,” Bob says. “If production this year is good, 2017 could be sensational.”
Since the rains began in early December, his rain gauge shows precipitation has totaled almost 8 inches. At the end of March, he turned on his drip system for the first time this season to provide an overnight irrigation for his vines. Normally, he irrigates two nights a week from March until June. Water comes from a system of five deep, metered wells operated by a small rural water company.
Although frost is a threat every spring for growers in the Santa Ynez Valley, it’s a minor concern for the Baehners. “We’re 600 feet higher than the valley floor and above the fog layer where the air is much warmer,” Bob says. “In the 16 years we’ve been here, we’ve never experienced frost. We didn’t know about the low frost threat when we planted the vineyard and went through the first several seasons without an overhead sprinkler system. By then, since we had not needed frost protection, we never installed sprinklers.”
The Baehners follow sustainable farming practices, minimizing the use of chemicals to control diseases, insect and other pests. With few nearby vineyards and frequent, blustery winds and warm temperatures, disease pressure in the vineyard has remained very low.
Occasionally, he applies sulfur to control any powdery mildew but uses no herbicides. Native grasses control erosion while limiting weed growth between the rows of vines on the slopes. He hires a crew with weed-whackers to control weeds within the rows.
“We can afford the extra cost of mechanical control because of our small acreage, and we think it contributes to the quality and value of our grapes,” Baehner says.
Meanwhile, he relies on trapping rather than poisons to control rodents, as well as resident barn owls and coyotes, bobcats and other wildlife. Also, a 100-head herd of cattle, which graze in the surrounding area, help keep the wildfire hazard down.