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Tribune, The (San Luis Obispo, CA)
March 18, 2005
Edition: Tribune
Column:Wine Notes

The Yearly Spring Chill-Out
Michaela Baltasar
The Tribune

With spring officially arriving Sunday, many San Luis Obispo County wine grape growers report healthy vines and even growth at the start of the 2005 season.

But with this awakening comes the danger of frost. Wine grapes are San Luis Obispo County's most valuable crop, earning $123 million in 2003, according to the most recent crop report, and cold temperatures could damage developing buds. From now through at least May, growers will be watching the weather.

If overnight temperatures drop to 31 degrees or lower, growers will be out in the vineyard, using devices such as sprinklers that contain heat within the grapes or wind machines to draw warm air to the vines.

"Everything in the vineyard looks good, and we're cautiously optimistic," said George Donati of Pacific Vineyard Co. Inc. in San Luis Obispo. "But frost is our main worry now. We'd like the weather to be above freezing."

Donati oversees Paragon, Edna Ranch, Wolff and Chamisal vineyards. Bud break began early this month. Different varietals develop young shoots at different times, and Donati said chardonnay and pinot noir are the main vines pushing buds right now, while syrah and sauvignon blanc are just getting started.

Donati last experienced frost damage several years ago, when he lost about two acres of his crop. While the damage was limited to a small, low- lying area, Donati doesn't want it to happen again.

Hank Ashby, manager of Santa Margarita-based French Camp Vineyards, has already begun to do frost protection. The 1,750-acre French Camp includes some land in Shandon, where temperatures fell to 29 degrees Tuesday night, causing a light frost in the area.

Ashby uses sprinklers to battle the frost. As water from the sprinklers cools and freezes, it forms a protective icy barrier.

Despite his recent brush with frost, Ashby believes this year is off to a good start.

"In general, there's not much frost this year," Ashby said.

Ashby is seeing bud break in all varieties. His chardonnay began developing buds two weeks ago, the earliest Ashby has ever seen. He attributes that to recent warm rains, which stimulated growth.

Donald Hofer, who owns Kiler Canyon Vineyard in Paso Robles with his wife, Barbara, believes this year's unusually wet weather will also result in stronger vines that are more likely to survive cold temperatures.

This is something Hofer welcomes, especially since his almost 16-acre vineyard has a limited water supply, which prevents him from using sprinklers for frost protection.

Hofer's viognier has developed almost all of its buds, and the syrah is just starting. This is similar to last year's bud break, which Hofer described as early compared to previous years.

"We always worry about frost, but we're not as worried about it this year," Hofer said. "Wetter soil creates better hydration, which means the vines will have better resistance."

Michaela Baltasar writes every Friday about grapes and the local wine industry.

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