Spring 2016 Vineyard Update
Every morning, our winemaker David Munksgard takes a purposeful walk through the vineyards. After yesterday’s sunrise rounds, I gave him a cross country call to get a snapshot of conditions at Iron Horse going into the Spring Equinox this Sunday. When I hung up, I could almost feel that early morning chill from my office in sun drenched Miami.
“It was very foggy but it burned off early. We’re going to hit the 70s today.” This year, seasonal updates come with an understandable preoccupation with water following the four year long drought. Spring 2016 is finally here with signs of El Nino’s positive (mostly) benevolent role.
David continued with a report that the reservoir on the estate is full. “It’s a happy thing.” He went on to explain that soil wise, all of our vineyards are saturated or at “field capacity.” Should rain continue next week, run off will start feeding the aquifers. The California water czar says we’re still technically in a drought and we’ll continue water rationing despite these high rain levels. David added, “We just forgot what normal looked like.” But very importantly, there are no vines in standing water - one of the great benefits of having our vineyards on gentle rolling hills as vine just don’t like wet feet. There are unusual areas of standing water in the floodplain, but none in planted areas and no erosion thanks to Laurence Sterling’s work to fortify ground cover.
Above - the happy full pond. Below - drone eyes on the flooding.
The full pond is critical for frost protection. The vines have woken up as you see in the photos
sprinkled throughout the blog. During this phase and this time of year, temperatures can easily slip into freezing range in the late night or early morning. To protect the new buds, we pump precious water from the reservoir through underground pipes up and down the hills to six foot tall sprinklers strategically positioned throughout the vineyard.
As soon as the temperature drops into the danger zone, alarms go off at the homes of two of our foremen, who in the dark and cold of night, prime the pumps and turn on the sprinklers to create a protective igloo-like effect around the buds. Our two heroes, Jose Puga and Manuel Briano, then stay up well past sunrise to monitor the situation until we are certain it is warm enough to turn off the water.
The coldest parts of the vineyard are in the low lying areas. As David explains, cold air falls and runs like a river down our hills, “puddling” in lower parts of the estate.
For the next two weeks, almost all of David’s cellar crew will be pruning with the vineyard team. “We do this every year to help get caught up. This is an early year - another early year, he says. And no one gets to wear just one hat at Iron Horse.
Leaving David to his morning routine, I sync up with Iron Horse CEO Joy Sterling. She is engaged in a number of community environmental action groups and a fountain of knowledge on the topic of the drought. For many reasons, Joy eats/sleeps/breathes updates on the slow recovery (my pet theory is that she has about a thousand different google alerts and may sleep a mere two hours per night). At the March 3rd California Department of Food and Agriculture Board Meeting, she was particularly downcast after a dour presentation by the State Water Board. February was so dry, the Headlines in the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle condemned El Nino for being a dud. Then came the March Miracle.
On the evening of March 5, El Nino rode in fast and furious on 40 mph winds. By Sunday morning, the bridge was flooded, blocking the front entrance of Iron Horse for two days, “I’m proud to say we still had a dozen intrepid guests who made the trek around the back road, showing yet again that bubbles make a rainy day better.”
Joy explains that as far as she’s concerned, winter can now gently yield to spring. She confesses she grew tired of the rain, no matter how much we need it. She also noted how technology has changed the experience of a natural event. Social media lets us tell people if we’re opened or closed and how to navigate the back roads. David’s drone shows us views of the flooding we have never seen before. “I was most taken by aerials of this very impressive, wide swath of water rushing down what's normally a road … but the vineyards completely in the clear,” she says. As David explains, vines can actually suffocate in standing water.
As of today, water levels are at 95% of average which we haven’t seen in four years. The next snowpack report is April 1, and Joy predicts it will be excellent, “Snow in the mountains is our best form of water storage.”
More encouraging news came in today from a great friend of Iron Horse, and one of Joy’s key sources, Phil Grosse, who helps keep us up to date on all things water related - this time with an Los Angeles Times article with the heartening headline: “Dramatic images show El Nino beginning to rescue California from its drought.”
The piece concedes it is still too early to declare the drought over, especially since the rains have been concentrated in Northern California. But even a good dent is great! We don’t need to resolve four years of drought in one month. A dent seems perfectly fine.
The imagery of progress is a beautiful thing. The spring tidings are more hopeful than ever at Iron Horse.
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