A Wine and Weather Wrap-up

Northern California recovers from a wet winter and soggy spring. Compiled by staff 

Published on: May 8, 2006

It appears that the so-called "100-Year Flood" cycle that California has experienced throughout the ages is now taking place about every eight to ten years, says Kendall-Jackson, Santa Rosa in its Countdown to Harvest 2006

Those who reminisce about the most recent "100-Year Flood" seasons of 1997-1998, 1994-1995, 1985-1986 and 1982-1983 see a similar pattern developing - a bountiful but late harvest, followed by a record-setting rainy period. Though it is too early for definitive analysis, most vineyard experts on the North Coast expect a "smaller-than-average" crop this year based on inspections of vine dissections and early vine shoots and cluster development through May 1.

By the beginning of April most inhabitants of Northern California were ready to move to Seattle for sunnier weather. Heavy flooding over the New Year weekend took place at a number of locations along the Russian River in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. There was also heavy flooding along the Napa River towns of St. Helena and Napa. Torrential downpours hit even the Santa Cruz wine region south of San Francisco particularly hard. As much as 10 inches of rain fell over a three-day period during that first January weekend in many areas of Northern California, causing most of the flooding. Though several low-lying dormant vineyards filled with flood debris, no major damage to grapevines was reported.

In some locations of Sonoma County's Dry Creek, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley, rainfall totals pushed over the 60-inch mark, setting records for the "official" rainy season that began on July 1, 2005. Winegrowers in Northern California generally work around a more practical rainy season calendar that runs from late October to the end of April.

By contrast, the Central Coast winegrowing regions of California had a very uneventful, normal rainy season. Escaping most of the torrential Pacific storms; Santa Barbara, San Luis and Monterey Counties experienced an uneventful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bud break in late March.

Up until March, most of the storms that parked over Northern California featured classic low pressure Gulf of Alaska systems driven by a strong jet stream. What made this year so wet were these cold storms out of the north tapped into warm tropical moisture, following the so-called "pineapple express." Climatologists call this weather pattern El Nino, which features abnormal sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. As the season progressed, the storms grew colder as the jet stream shot straight into California out of the Arctic. In early March, many lower coastal elevation vineyards experienced their first of three heavy snowfalls.

Mountain locations such as Kendall-Jackson's Hawkeye Mountain Estate above the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County saw as much as eight inches of snow. Other well-known mountain vineyards such as Howell, Diamond and Veeder in the Napa Valley were also heavily coated with snow. All of Kendall-Jackson's mountain vineyards were dormant at the time and were unharmed by the snowfall.

When all was said and done, by the end of April, rain gauges in the bucolic farming community of Healdsburg logged a record 65 inches, the third heaviest rainfall amount since 1880. A few miles to the west of Healdsburg in the famed Sonoma Coast winegrowing region, the town of Cazadero approached its known rainfall record with 110 inches, an amount of rain comparable to certain spots on the Hawaiian Islands and the Olympic Mountain Range in western Washington.

"Now that warmer, sunnier days have arrived, the grapevines have taken off," says Kendall-Jackson Winemaster Randy Ullom. "Though we're easily three weeks off what we consider to be a normal path to harvest, we expect to make up some time with the good weather."

As the North Coast vineyards dry out, and with the lakes and reservoirs at capacity, the grapevines do what they do every year - soak up the abundant sunlight like tiny solar panels, supplying the plant with energy to produce intense, luscious fruit. At some point in early October the ripe berry will meet its ultimate destiny with the winemaker.