Late Cold Snap Puts a Chill on California Vineyards

By: Michelle Locke
By: Michelle Locke

NAPA, Calif. (AP) -- April was a cruel month for California winemakers, bringing a series of unusually late frosts to vineyards baring the tender, green shoots of spring.

The damage still is being assessed - it could be June before growers know the full extent - but most expect smaller-than-average harvests this year.

"It was cold in lots of places," said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "There's lots of misery to be shared."

The cold snap's immediate effects can be seen in some vineyards, where leaves that normally would be fluttering pale green in spring breezes are curled up brittle as December leaves.

The long-term consequences are less certain. Vines that survived the cold should produce normal fruit and quality shouldn't be affected, although growers may have to make some adjustments in how they maintain the vines, said Jim Regusci, president of Napa-based Regusci Vineyard Management. Even damaged vines may produce secondary buds that will yield fruit.

Still, the chances for a normal size harvest this fall are "probably pretty low," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

The frosts hit all over Northern California, including Mendocino and Lake counties in Northern California as well as the Napa Valley and Sonoma County regions. The cold also was felt in Central Coast vineyards.

Damage was spotty, a hallmark of frost, with some vineyards mangled in only in a few corners.

Sinking temperatures dragged growers out of bed as frost alarms on vineyard thermometers went off.

Although a little frost isn't unusual, the cold snap that lasted 20 or more nights in some places was a first for many vintners.

"The last one we had that was anywhere near this brutal was back in the '70s," said Napa County Agriculture Commissioner Dave Whitmer.

Farmers have a couple of options for fighting frost. Wind machines can keep low-settling cold air off vines and move in the warmer air. Irrigation also is used to deposit a thin layer of ice over buds, keeping them at about 32 degrees and preventing damage from colder temperatures.

Some vineyards didn't have irrigation protection because it's never been needed before. Others came close to depleting their water reservoirs, which could be a problem come summer.

"This frost - it's kind of the perfect weather pattern that came through just to blast us," Regusci said. "What happened was that it brought the temperatures down so low that it burned right through normal frost protection."

Fuel consumption meanwhile was "unreal," he said, adding wryly, "Good timing, also, at four bucks a gallon."

Another unknown is what the frost may have done to next year's crop - since vines are perennial, the area on the vine where buds for the 2009 harvest would form may have been damaged.

Predictions of a small harvest come after two years of relatively normal-sized crops had helped alleviate a grape glut, meaning growers were hoping to get good prices.

Ross said with the market moving back into balance, growers had hoped for a good year.

"It's kind of like getting ready for that great banquet and we thought this was the year the banquet was going to be extra flavorful," Ross said. "To have any crop taken away hurts."


HONOLULU (AP) - Federal regulations are being amended to allow the commercial shipment of seven fruits from Hawaii to mainland states.

Congresswoman Mazie Hirono said in a news release that the regulations cover mangosteen, dragon fruit, melon, pods of cowpea, breadfruit, jackfruit and fresh moringa pods.

Under the new regulations, the fruit must undergo irradiation treatment to ensure pests do not enter the continental U.S. The fruit must also meet other inspection and treatment requirements specific to the commodity and its pest risk.

Hirono said she is generally pleased with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's announcement that its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is amending the regulations.

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