The last of Steele Wines’ nine grape varieties in its Lake County vineyards – Cabernet Franc and Semillon – have finished blooming. The Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel were the first to bloom about two weeks earlier.
Although just slightly ahead of the normal timing, this year’s bloom was even earlier than in the last three years, reports Steve Tylicki, Steele Wines’ general manager and viticulturist. “We’ve had a decent spring, drier and sunnier than usual, but not overly warm,” he says. “And, we’ve had very few frost events.”
Based in Lakeport, Calif., the winery’s 100 acres of vineyards also include Barbera, Counoise, Muscat Canelli and Pinot Noir. The vines grow at elevations from 1,360 to 1,500 feet. The operation also includes 28 acres of old vine, dry-farmed Zinfandel near Ukiah, in Mendocino County, at elevations of 700 to 900 feet.
After several years of somewhat lower-than-average grape production, the winery’s 2012 crush was its largest ever. Tylicki will get his first good idea of this year’s crop size in mid-June after grape set.
“So far, it looks pretty good,” he says. “Right now, the Merlot looks very good. We’ve solved the problems we’ve had getting the fruit to set.”
Three years ago, he began treating his Merlot with a pre-bloom spray of zinc and boron. It didn’t seem to have much effect the first year. But, since then he’s noticed a definite improvement in pollination success.
Although the last frost event in his vineyards this year was in early May, some Lake County growers at the higher elevations were forced to turn on their sprinklers in the last week of May to protect their crop.
Due to the dry spring weather, he started irrigating his vineyards earlier than usual. He has already had run water through his drip systems twice this season. The heat should ease the powdery mildew pressure in his fields, too.
“Whenever temperatures stay above 95 degrees for several hours, you can almost hear the mildew spores sizzling out there,” Tylicki says.
Timing his applications, based on the Powdery Mildew Index developed by University of California researchers, he treats his vines with sulfur to protect them from the fungal disease.
Prior to bloom, he applies wettable sulfur with a spreader-sticker. “Even if we get some rain in-between sprays, this sulfur stays on the vine,” he says. “After bloom, we switch to dusting. It’s faster than spraying and is quite effective in warmer temperatures.”
Pacific spider mites require control in his vineyards every two or three years, Tylicki notes. So far this season, he’s had mite pressure in just one field.
Leafhoppers are another periodic threat. This year, he wasted no time responding to the first sightings of a new leafhopper , the Virginia creeper leafhopper.
Tylicki prefers to use environmentally-friendly methods of controlling pests as much as possible. However, the Anagrus spp. wasp that parasitizes leafhopper eggs and is used to control western grape leafhoppers, isn’t very effective in controlling the Virginia creeper leafhopper.
Normally, he doesn’t treat for leafhoppers this early in the season. But, during the last week of May he sprayed vineyards where the Virginia creeper leafhopper has been identified. “This is one pest that can really jump on you,” he says. “So, you have to get out ahead of it. Hopefully, this one treatment will control it. If not, we’ll spray again. I’m definitely not going to let this insect get a foothold here.”
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