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Rainy weather makes for another wet California winter

Historic levels of rain were delivered to California in the form of atmospheric rivers, which are expected to continue to bring rain throughout the month of February. Decanter's Clive Pursehouse speaks with wine producers across the state to get a sense of how the vines are faring.

After a very wet winter and spring in 2023, California is seeing another series of winter storms in the form of both significant rain and high mountain snow in early 2024. The state was beset with difficult conditions, particularly in Southern California, where Los Angeles saw nearly half a year’s worth of rainfall in only a few short days.

Fatalities, flooding and more than 400 mudslides were just some of the results of the intense storms in California.

The already saturated ground and stressed infrastructure will make the pending storms even more challenging for parts of the state.

In California’s wine country, the rains were largely seen as a positive, particularly after the 2023 vintage, which is being heralded as one of the best ever for regions like Napa and Sonoma. The banner year was kicked off with a particularly wet winter and spring.

Napa Valley

Bruce Phillips, owner and grape grower at Napa’s Vine Hill Ranch, saw the rains as a net positive both now and for the vintage to come. ‘We received approximately 53% of our average annual rainfall through the month of January 2024,’ Phillips said. ‘In light of the El Niño pattern existent off the Pacific Coast, the Napa Valley had anticipated heavy rainfall this season and was well prepared for its arrival despite the accompanying high winds that resulted in widespread power outages and fallen trees across the region.’

‘That said, because of our well-draining soils and the fact that cover crops were well established prior to the downpours, there was no significant damage to vineyards across Napa County. All of this portends well for the delivery of much-needed water to Napa County and for an increased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which is so critical for the balance of the state’s water supply.’

Sonoma Coast

‘We follow a no-till path with regenerative-organic-biodynamic principles at RAEN,’ said the winery’s proprietor Carlo Mondavi. ‘This means that we have a great deal of organic matter in our soils, which helps retain the rainwater, leaving us minimal to no runoff. This helps nourish our soils and vines while also preventing erosion.’

Mondavi continued: ‘With wet soils and severe winds we saw many beautiful old trees fall across Napa and Sonoma, including at our vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. One mature fir fell along the edge of our Royal St. Robert block, crossing a few rows. It’s hard to say what the total damage is, as some of the vines might pull through. It could be a loss of no vines or a maximum of five.’

‘Throughout the AVAs that we work with, the main issue was wind,’ said Kosta Browne winemaker Julien Howsepian. ‘With 50-to-60-mile-per-hour gusts knocking down trees and causing power outages.’

‘While it was a wild few days, the rain was very much welcome. As we head into the 2024 growing season, we have abundant groundwater at our vineyard sites in some regions, including the Sta. Rita Hills, which has received eight to nine inches of rain, we’ve already hit our annual rainfall averages. After more than a few drought vintages in recent years, having enough water to work with will be very beneficial for our vineyards and wines.’

San Luis Obispo Coast

Further south, the rains more than sufficiently quenched some of the state’s typically parched areas while also creating some unease for vineyard teams.

‘On the San Luis Obispo Coast, we received around five inches of rain this past week, which is a nice amount for our typically rain-starved region,’ said Eric Johnson, director of viticulture and winemaking at Talley Vineyards. ‘There was no real damage felt except for a few fallen oak branches. Luckily, we have a couple of weeks until bud break, so the vines and this year’s crop didn’t experience any damage.’

‘We do see two downsides to the rain,’ Johnson explained. ‘First, the storm was fairly warm, so it did nothing to help the hibernation of the vines. Ideally, we would want a colder storm to delay bud break as long as we can to avoid frost damage. Secondly, when it rains, we can’t work in the vineyard. We desperately need to be out there pruning before the vines wake up. Hopefully, we can get some dry cold weather so we can delay bud break and finish up pruning.’

Rain is a welcome site in Paso Robles. Credit: Neil Collins for Tablas Creek

Paso Robles

In nearby Paso Robles, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek is thrilled with the recent precipitation. ‘The rains here were nothing but good news,’ Haas said. ‘We got about 15cm spread over a week, and that pushes us up to about 45cm for the year. That’s about 125% of normal for this date. It’s late enough in the winter season that the cover crops are very well established, and there was no erosion or any negative impacts whatsoever.’

‘Overall, the winter has been delightfully boring,’ Haas continued. ‘Gentle rains, spaced out well, with sun and cold in between, but not too much of anything. Last night frosted, and we’re supposed to see cold nights all through the weekend, which is great; the combination of all the water in the ground and the cold temperatures should do a good job of keeping soil temperatures low and delaying bud break.’

‘This is exactly what we’d have hoped for. We didn’t need another 50-inch rainfall winter, but average to slightly above average water on top of last year’s reserves and cool temps to reduce our risk of damage from spring frosts is perfect.’


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