Vine Damage Hit-and-Miss from Early Frost
Santa Barbara County, CA – An unexpectedly early frost as the grape harvest heads into the final stretch has resulted in hit-and-miss damage, with vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley apparently suffering more than those in the Santa Maria Valley.
Temperatures on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights dipped into the 40s in many places, 30s in a few, and even as low as 26 in isolated areas of the Santa Ynez Valley, with the coldest readings occurring on different nights in different locations.
But the short duration of the unseasonably cold weather probably limited the damage, said Guy Tingos, deputy commissioner with the Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office. “Usually, brief temperatures going down around 30 or so don’t hurt,” Tingos said. “Most of the grapes are harvested anyway.”
Some growers said they are done or nearly finished harvesting, especially the white varietals, although some such as sauvignon blanc are still being picked. But a lot of red varietals – especially the Italians – are still on the vines, and while the potential for damaged grapes has some growers scrambling to get frost-burned fruit off of the vines, a few are waiting to see if they suffered damage.
“Some winegrapes were damaged, but we pretty much just finished up, although there are a few blocks we’re still harvesting,” Greg Phelan, manager of Solomon Hills Vineyards and Winery, said Monday afternoon. Phelan said the worst cold hit his vineyards early Sunday morning.
“Some places certainly got burned by the frost,” said Kevin Merrill, vineyard manager for Mesa Vineyard Management in Santa Maria. “I know if you did have damage, you want to get the grapes off (the vines) in three or four days.” Merrill said most of the damage likely occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley, which is usually “the cold spot.” “Certainly around Santa Maria, I don’t think they were hurt too much,” he said.
Louis Lucas of Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards in Solvang said some of his vineyards were hit pretty hard, although the Solvang fields seemed to have the fewest problems. “We got burned at all the ranches,” he said Monday, noting the temperature at some of the fields dropped down to the 26-29 degree range Saturday night. But he said he picked some Petit Syrah Monday morning that was “absolutely perfect.”
“I don’t think we’ll lose any more grapes,” he added. “But you can’t tell (how much they were damaged) until a few days after the frost. You can see a deterioration in the fruit, and the stems go limp. You can pick the fruit, and you pick as fast as you can.”
He noted that if the frost had struck two weeks ago, a lot of the grapes would not have been ripe enough to pick. “If you’re going out and picking grapes that are green and not ready – you can pick them, but they don’t make very good wine.”
Lucas said an early fall frost is a complicated issue that goes beyond just damage to the grapes that have yet to be picked, extending to the foliage and the vines themselves. “When you lose the foliage, you lose the mechanism that gets the grapes ripe,” he said. “But you need a frost in the fall to clean up the wood. You need the foliage to fall off so you can trim back the vines. But with a frost the second week in October, it’s not good for the vines because they go dormant too early,” he added. It’s not very much help.”
Lucas said protecting the vineyards from frost at this point in the harvest is also difficult. “Usually, in the spring, you use water – a lot of water,” he explained. “but now you’ve got grapes on the vine, so you can’t use water. The grapes will rot if they get too wet too often. And if you use a lot of water, the ground soaks it up and dilutes the grapes. “And who keeps his reservoir full at today’s energy costs when you don’t expect to water?” he said. He also said netting placed over the vines to protect the grapes covers the sprinklers as well, preventing them from rotating even if growers try to use water to protect against the frost.
“So it’s a complicated issue,” Lucas said. “It’s not just a matter of ‘Oh, you got frost, so your grapes are damaged.”