California wine grape growers concerned about erratic spring weather

May 31, 2011
The Sacramento Bee

Bruce Rominger's Yolo County wine grapes are, in a word, immature.

So are his processing tomatoes, languishing in a Winters field.

"We're behind, and things are moving slowly," Rominger said of his crops. "I'm not happy about this rain recently."

Wine grape growers in the Sacramento region, along with those tending other perishable crops like cherries and strawberries, are struggling through a series of fluke frosts and hailstorms. The cool, wet spring - for the second year in a row - has delayed growth, increased the threat of some diseases and snarled the harvest, as well as crushing, packing and shipping schedules.

The zany weather is adding to the California wine industry's headaches, which include depressed prices and a glut of grapes.

Kevin Steward, vineyard manager for Terra d'Oro Winery in Plymouth, is blunt about the effect of frost, snow, hail, rainstorms and cloudy days on some Sierra foothill vineyards.

"This has been a horrible season so far," he said. "This has been a pain in the neck. We've had wet weather, nothing is growing and we're a good month behind schedule."

He said a late frost in the foothills on April 7, followed by hail and snow, damaged wine grape varietals, such as Barbera and Sangiovese, that push out their fruit earlier in the season. While it's too early to predict if the cool spring will affect overall crop volumes, gloomy weather has stalled the growth of vines, buds and clusters.

"It's darn near June. The leaves should be big and green, the branches should be strong and thick," Steward said. "We're not seeing the color in the leaves we're used to."

John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said wine grapes have not suffered dramatic damage statewide, but some individual growers and varieties in different locations have been hit by erratic weather.