The worst frost damage in more than 30 years hit California’s vineyards the week of April 20, with temperatures dipping into the 20s for four nights in a row.
From Mendocino County through Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley, the California Farm Bureau Federation says some growers are reporting that half their crop is gone.
Damage in Santa Barbara County was widespread. This reporter observed whole portions of vineyards with blackened leaves and dead clusters. Greg Brewer, winemaker at Brewer-Clifton and Melville, said, “A lot of us have sustained damage, particularly in lower-lying vineyards.”
Ben Merz, a partner in Santa Barbara’s largest vineyard management company, Coastal Vineyard Care, which farms 2,200 acres, calls the event “the worst frost season any of us can remember. There were ranchers who lost everything.” Merz added, “We were winning the war until Monday [April 21] hit. We had temperatures nobody ever saw before,” with 25 degrees that night. He expressed “surprise” that the frost hit at higher elevations, where it usually doesn’t. “Nobody ever guessed there would be frost up there, so they didn’t even have sprinklers” for frost control.
Jeff Hinchliffe, winemaker at Hanna Winery, in Sonoma County, says, “If you didn’t have frost protection or were late getting your sprinklers on, you got [your vines] burned.” Hanna was relatively lucky, but many growers do not have sprinklers.
B.R. Cohn’s winemaker, Tom Montgomery, says one of his growers, in central Mendocino, lost 60 percent of his Cabernet Sauvignon. Another grower, near Petaluma, lost his entire vineyard of Pinot Gris. “He just called me, and was almost in tears, the poor guy,” Montgomery said, adding, “It got so cold that even the sprinklers didn’t protect the grapes.”
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner, Lisa Correia, as estimating that 10 to 15 percent of the county’s grapes have been damaged or destroyed.
In Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, “It’s a war up here. Just unprecedented,” says Goldeneye’s winemaker, Zach Rasmussen. “Even oldtimers are saying you have to go back 3, 4 decades for this thing. The major players up here, the names you associate with Anderson Valley, including us, are in real trouble.”
The Sierra Foothills also got blasted. “The frost hit the area really hard,” says David Webster, GM at Stevenot, in Calaveras County. He added, “I’ve heard about 70% damage in some places.” Adds Scott Klann, winemaker at Twisted Oak and owner of Newsome Harlow, “Calaveras County took it on the chin. We had pretty severe damage. Some blocks are 70% toasted. Beyond us, damage is rampant. A couple vineyards are just decimated. They look like lettuce in a freezer.”
Even winemakers who escaped relatively unscathed are worried that more freezing nights may be on the way. Adding to their woes is the current California drought, which is leading to water rationing in many areas. The overhead sprinklers that saved many vines cut deeply into wineries’ water supplies. “We used 70 percent of our water storage for the entire year” battling the frost, says Rasmussen. “That means we’re going to have to be very smart about irrigation” for the remainder of the 2008 growing season.
When the primary clusters are destroyed by frost, vines will grow secondary clusters, but these can be variable in size and quality. Vintners are hoping their secondary clusters will be farmable, but in the case of late-ripening varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, next Fall’s rainy season may hit before they’re ready to harvest. “We may get the early varieties ripe,” says Merz, “but, with later-ripening varieties, you’re probably better off thinking about next year.”
The loss of so sizable a crop is going to hit consumers in their wallets. “This is going to have some pretty significant impact on the grape and bulk wine market prices,” Montgomery predicted.