With world events weighing heavy upon all of us, not to mention the rainy weather here on the Central Coast, we could all be forgiven if we forgot to notice that last Thursday was the first official day of spring.
However, our estate Margarita Vineyard has certainly taken notice, as the vines are now clearly transitioning from the dormancy phase to the growth phase, with bud break now happening in some blocks.
“Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz watches the willows in the creek bed as a good indicator at Margarita Vineyard,” says Ancient Peaks co-owner and viticulturist Doug Filipponi. “When the willows start to leaf out, it usually means bud break is about two weeks away, and that’s what we saw again this year.”
The “March Miracle”
The table for the 2020 growing season has been happily set by an abundance of March rains, which have so far averaged more than five inches across Santa Margarita Ranch—all following a concerningly dry winter.
“This has been another ‘March Miracle’ here in SLO County,” Doug says. “Not only does this rain recharge our region’s aquifers, it also helps flush the salts from the vineyard soils and away from the root zones.”
Doug explains that, in drought conditions, natural salts build up in the soil. Excessive salt can inhibit leaf and cane growth, resulting in an imbalanced vine. “When you see vine leaves that are turning red in the early fall, that can be an indication of vines that are struggling with salt buildup in the root zone,” he says.
While targeted irrigation can help flush the soils, nothing beats heavy rains. “Rainfall is a win-win in this situation,” Doug says. “It really flushes things out; it replenishes our water supply; and it keeps us from using more water to get rid of the salt buildup.”
Margarita Vineyard is now a sight to behold as the sun begins to peek out from behind the clouds. The cover crops and hills are blanketed in green, and the fields are dotted with tiny colorful wildflowers that will surely explode across the landscape as the weather warms up.
Next up is full bud break, when the buds left on the vine after pruning break open to push the first green growth of the vintage—starting as delicate little shoots, then soon becoming slender green canes with tiny leaves. Our Chardonnay vines are typically the first to bud out, although Syrah comes first in some years.
At this tender stage, the vines are susceptible to frost damage, as spring freezes can fry the young shoots. This is a perennial concern at Margarita Vineyard, which occupies one of Paso Robles’ coolest growing environments.
“Frost is one of the few downsides of our location, but we are more than happy to deal with it because of the extreme benefits of being a cool-climate vineyard,” Doug says, noting that the cooler conditions produce wines with a natural balance of ripe flavors, fine acidity and beautiful structure.
We use two tools to combat frost events: pulse emitters that spray a fine water mist over the vine to create an ice barrier over the young growth; and wind machines that circulate warmer air into the low spots where freezing is more prevalent.
More and more, we are relying on wind. We start with portable wind machines to identify the areas where they are most effective, and then we install permanent machines in those spots. To date, we have installed ten permanent wind machines and six portables.
There’s not much we can say about vintage 2020 at this point, other than we expect to see some nice, balanced vines thanks to the March Miracle.
As always, we will nimbly navigate the frost season. Come late may, the vines will start “flowering,” whereby they self-pollinate and set the crop for the harvest ahead.
This we know for sure: Mother Nature is reliable and resilient, and as we all hope to emerge from these uncertain times sooner rather than later, we can look forward to another flavorful bounty come next fall!