Considering the hard freeze this past December and extremely dry weather up until around the middle of January, the Sierra Foothills vineyards managed by Carol Laubach are in much better shape at the start of June than she was expecting at the beginning of this year.
She and her husband, Dave, who have been growing grapes since starting Lauzere Vineyards in Amador County nearly 20 years ago, own Lauzere Vineyard Services. Based in Pine Grove, Calif., the company manages vineyards in four appellations in Amador, Calavera, El Dorado and Sacramento Counties. They grow about a dozen different varieties, including Zinfandel, the most widely-grown grape in the Sierra Foothills, at elevations ranging from 300 feet to 2,200 feet.
Responding to warmer-than-usual weather, including frost-free conditions since budbreak, some of her Viognier blocks at lower elevations began blooming as early as May 1. At higher elevations the Viognier bloom started May 14. Meanwhile, some of her Sauvignon Blanc began blooming on May 2. Typically, that occurs in early June. Her mid- to late-blooming red grapes, such as Primitivo, Temperanillo and Zinfandel, finished blooming in the last week of May as usual.
“Right now, the vineyards are sitting very nicely,” Laubach says. “Vine growth has been good. Despite a little bit of shatter – nothing really serious – we’ve had a good, consistent fruit set on the white varieties. Also, the cluster counts are average to slightly better. In fact, the clusters are elongating slightly more than average for this point in the season. We’ll see if that results in large clusters at harvest.”
Over three days in early December, temperatures in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County dropped into the low 20s, remaining there for as long as 12 hours at a time and never rising above 38 degrees, Laubach notes. That’s an unusually long period of such temperatures for this area, she adds.
The toll on the vines from that hard freeze turned out to be less than she had feared at the time – a damaged spur or stunted shoot growth, here and there.
Typically, her vineyards receive 28 to 30 inches of rain in the first five months or so of the year, Laubach reports. This year, one rain gauge shows a total of about 21 inches of rainfall since mid-January.
Except for a few dry-farmed vineyards, her vineyards are irrigated with well water. “Some wells have been untried during a drought,” she says. “Others have less water in drought conditions. So far, the water supplies are holding up. We’ll know more come August and September when we’ll really be needing the water.”
In the meantime, Laubach is irrigating only the vineyard suffering the frost damage to keep those vines healthy. With nice, elongated shoots growing in the remaining vineyards, she’s holding off their first irrigation of the season for as long as possible. When she does turn on the water, the sets will be as short and as far between as needed to stretch supplies.
She bases her irrigation timing and application rates based on what she sees in her regular walks through the vineyards. “The vines tell you in a number of ways, such as internode length, leaf blade angle, and tendrils, if they are stressed for water,” she says. “I’ve managed these vineyards long enough to know the water capacities of their soils and if they need 6 hours, 12 hours, 18 hours or longer of irrigation to get them through a hot spell.”
Meanwhile, at the end of May, Laubach was finishing crown suckering in her higher-elevation vineyards and was making the last pass down the rows with a mower. With such rocky soils and dry conditions in her vineyards, she explains, mowing any later this season runs the risk of a blade hitting a rock and sparking a blaze.
Next on her to-do list is some light fruit thinning where needed. “We’ll do a little more of that than usual this year because of the drought,” Laubach says. “That will help keep down the production pressure on the vines to reduce water use while maintaining fruit quality.”