By mid-May, the results of recurring rains, which returned to the region in mid-February, combined with unseasonably warm spring weather were on full display in wine grape vineyards throughout Napa Valley.
The start of bloom in early May was about two weeks ahead of the typical timing, reports Julie Nord, vineyard manager with Nord Vineyard Services, based in Napa, Calif. She tends the soils and vines at 18 sites throughout the appellation.
“You can smell the blossoms everywhere,” she says. “All the varieties seem to be close together in bloom throughout Napa. The vineyards look beautiful. All the reservoirs are full. Everything is growing very well.”
This has resulted in what Nord describes as happy vines, sporting longer-than-usual shoot growth and plenty of clusters.
The Cabernet Sauvignon blocks have responded particularly well to the favorable growing conditions, despite some shatter. The large number of clusters with wings means she and her crews will be doing more thinning this year to protect fruit quality by reducing stress on the vines.
The frost threat this year has been remarkably low, Nord notes. “Most of our locations have required no frost protection,” she says. “Even in our coldest vineyards, where we normally run frost protection 20 to 30 nights a season, we’ve only had to turn on the sprinklers twice.”
The early start to the season may reduce the impact of any red blotch, a viral disease which delays ripening of the grapes. “We haven’t tested for the disease, and we haven’t had a problem with it,” she says. “But, having more time to harvest any infected blocks should help minimize the effects of this disease.”
Unusually cold weather this past December could help Nord and other Napa growers in their battle the blue-green sharpshooter, a vector for Pierce’s disease. Last year, as elsewhere in the area, trap counts of the insect in her vineyards were a little higher than usual, she notes. They’ll soon get an idea of the latest threat level from this year’s trapping program, which has just begun.
Growers here also are hoping the low December temperatures will help reduce populations of the European Grape Vine Moth
The early and fast pace of growth in the vineyards this season has Nord and her crews playing catch up in managing the vines. “We feel like we’re behind in our work all the time,” she says.
That feeling is likely to persist throughout the rest of the season. Veteran growers generally figure wine grapes are ripe for picking about 100 to 120 days after bloom. That would put the start of this year’s Napa harvest beginning in early to mid-August with sparking and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. One exception is likely to be the fields of Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine makers like for this slow-to-ripen grape to hang on the vines about two to three weeks later than most others to maximize fruit quality.
“My friends and I who work in the vineyards are joking that we may be able to go on vacation in November this year,” Nord says.
In the meantime, she and her crews will be busy managing this season’s vigorous vine growth. That’s likely to include extra trips down the rows suckering, thinning shoots and removing leaves.
The thick canopies will also require special attention in their powdery mildew control program, which began at bloom. That will include taking special care to ensure good coverage inside the canopies when applying fungicides.
“We’ll be doing extra leafing and adding a systemic spray to our sulfur dusting program,” Nord explains. “And, we’ll have to check the vines much more closely for any signs of the disease so we can treat promptly.”
As she sees it, the surprisingly robust growth in the vineyards this season, following two straight years of high fruit quality and high yields, reflects vines that are in very good health and condition.
“I’m excited that we may have a three-peat year,” Nord says. “I can’t remember when that’s happened before.”
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