That the winter has been warmer than usual doesn’t surprise many people, but the degree to which it’s been warmer might. “Our average (daily) high is running about 5.5 degrees warmer than average,” said Horst Caspari, state viticulturist at the Orchard Mesa Research Station.
It’s not yet a big or long-term trend, since Caspari noted the previous year was cooler than average. But even with the warmer temperatures, it still hasn’t been warm enough long enough to cause grape vines to break dormancy and start sending out new shoots.
“We’ve seen this before and if we get two to three cold weeks in February everything will slip back,” he said. Those two weeks turned into one week, culminating in Sunday’s storm and by Tuesday temperatures again were edging back in the 40s.
According to Caspari, the magic temperature (magic in the way that plants start to respond) is 50 degrees, but it takes more than simply reaching 50 degrees to begin the processes of spring. Plants (and it differs with nearly every plant) need a certain number of growing degree days, when the 24-hour temperature average is 50 or above, to start their growth cycle.
Hitting 50 or 58, as it did briefly earlier this winter, isn’t enough to signal it’s spring, because the temperature still was dropping well below that threshold every evening. And even receiving two weeks of warm weather in January and February, with winter still ready to come roaring back, aren’t enough to break that winter’s sleep.
“A really warm day in March makes up for 15 warm days in January,” Caspari said. Meaning a plant will respond greater to a warm March spell than what pass for warm days in Janauary, when warm might mean touching 45 for an hour or two and then plunging back to single digits at night.
Now, with February entering its final week, spring or it’s thermographic equivalent might really be around the corner. “We don’t get real heat degree days until late February,” Caspari said, which means you can expect to see some action any day now.
If you’re really curious, you can figure growing degree days by taking the day’s high temperature, adding the low temperature and divide the result by two. Subtract the base temperature (50) and you get degree days.
How ever solid your math, grape growers have an added advantage over the orchardists since late-breaking grape buds aren’t as susceptible to early spring frosts. Late frosts, though, such as the one last May that damaged vines across the valley, are a distinct danger, which is why grape growers have invested in wind machines and frost alarms expect to get little sleep until well into May.
Climate trends are all the news and there is one being followed in the North Fork Valley. Caspari said grape growers there who a decade ago were growing pinot noir with ease now are struggling to get that notoriously fickle grape to mature.
“There’s been a few years when they’ve had extremely cold winters, early freezes and later springs,” Caspari said. “They started out with a few good years from 1996 to 2000 but pinot noir doesn’t grow well right now.”
During a conversation with Paonia winemaker Eames Peterson, who delights in making excellent pinot noirs, he mentioned the 2011 harvest was a bit rough. “It got cold and froze and I was forced to harvest in October, which for me is not really late, but it was late in the sense the grapes were just barely ripe enough,” said the founder and winemaker for Alfred Eames Cellars. “But they shut down and I couldn’t wait.”
Grape growers closer to the valley floor didn’t see the same cold as Peterson and he said it was because a breeze kept the cold air moving. Freezing causes grape vines to stop growing, cutting off the stream of nutrients to leaves and fruit, and grapes start to dehydrate on the vine.
“The fact the wind was blowing down there in the canyon saved them,” he said. “That sometimes happens here. If it hadn’t be blowing down there, it would have frozen them more than us.” Peterson said grapes were in short supply to the point where this year he won’t be making an estate reserve pinot noir.
Peterson said his last big harvest was 2009, when he made 1,700 cases of wine. He ranks that vintage as the best he’s made.
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Questions over the fate of the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau) have apparently been answered with this week’s release of the 2013 federal budget proposal. Word was out earlier this fall that the Obama Administration was considering eliminating the TTB in the 2013 federal budget as a way to save funds, rolling that agency’s duties into the FDA and the IRS (acronyms enough, you said?).
But it appears the TTB is alive and well, at least according to Wednesday’s The Gray Report, the newsworthy blog by W. Blake Gray, who happens to be in Portugal and enjoying every minute of it.
The idea of eliminating the TTb puzzled many onlookers, although at least one website urged the President to axe the TTB to save some $80 million. That’s not going to have much affect on a $15.4 trillion national debt but just like love, every little bit counts, right?
We’ll wait to see how the Republicans might respond, since they’ve been pushing for some budget savings while being loathe to admit anything the Dems do might be a good idea.
Ask any winemaker and he or she can talk at length on the bonding, licensing, and other regulations they have to follow in order get their product on your table (or on the store shelf, given the three-tier system). Trying to figure out the machinations of another agency, or finding that the new agency might even be bit anti-alcohol, as some claim the IRS is, would only lead to more confusion, more frustration and more delays (read that: cost).
The only change in the regs, says Gray, allows the IRS to investigate and prosecute tax code violations. And allow the TTB to continue its usual sterling job of approving wine labels in its bright-eyed and expeditious manner.
Earlier, the Lehrman Beverage Law site quoted Wine & Spirits Daily as saying “One of the biggest complaints last year was the TTB’s slow response time when it came to approving labels – a result of less funding by Obama and inevitable lay-offs. As a remedy, the TTB proposed shifting its duties more towards enforcement rather than label pre-approvals, but the industry fought it.”
Wine & Spirits goes on to say: “[I]t doesn’t seem likely that disbanding the TTB would save much money because theoretically it would require the same amount of people to complete the same functions now performed by the TTB, which ‘is pretty bare bones as it is.'”
Apparently the Obama bunch felt the same way since the new budget proposal doesn’t mention slashing the TTB. Now, about that tax code…
Don’t be surprised to see wine prices increase this year, says the always entertaining and informative writer W. Blake Gray on his blog, The Gray Market Report.
Gray lists smaller vintages oin California, Italy and Spain as warning signs that the world’s ocean of wine has shrunk considerably over the past few years, forcing prices up as demand, particularly in the U.S., continues to grow.
Forget arguing over to what degree quality affects wine prices, he says.
“Pricing is all about supply and demand,'” Gray writes in his latest blog entry.
His argument makes sense: As stocks of bulk wines shrink, distributors will be harder pressed to satisfy the demand from consumers accustomed to finding California Cabs for $20.
Bulk wines include not only the lesser-quality juice commonly used for blending but also situations where top wineries have produced more wine than they can sell and market that surplus to small-company labels or to mass-market distributors (think Bronco Wine Company’s popular “Two-Buck Chuck”) for private label bottling.
Bulk-wine volumes in California (those being sold by vintners to other vinteners) reached 15 million to 20 million gallons since 2000, according to a report in the Jan. 19 issue of North Bay Business Journal out of Sacramento, Cal.
The story, citing Brian Clements and Marc Cuneo of Novato (Cal.)-based Turrentine Brokerage at the 21st annual Sonoma County Winegrape Commission Dollars & Sense seminar, said aggressive marketing efforts by wineries to reduce that inventory, along with the three successive smaller harvests, “have siphoned the bulk-wine inventory down to 4 million gallons now.”
The varietal most affected, the grape brokers said, has been cabernet sauvignon.
“This is the first time I’ve been involved in a market flip that was not about sales,” Mr. Clements said. “This flip has been about inventory.”
“If wine sales continue as they have, we can look for a very deep shortage of cab in the North Coast,” he said.
Clements also warned of a potential shortage of chardonnay, which continues to be the favorite white wine of American consumers and, according to Reuters, the No. 1 white wine in the world.