Burrr … California frost and the impact on the 2008 vintage

Minnesotans know what it’s like to be cold (especially after this last winter!). In many ways, we relish that first morning of beautiful frost covering the lawns and trees. But for California grape growers, frost is a four letter word … especially this year. Although weather for the past couple weeks in California has been above average and downright hot in some areas – 100s in Napa and mid-90’s in San Francisco (native San Franciscans melt in the 80’s), frost damage over the past two months is the worst in 25-30 years.

The areas I’m referring to are many of California’s premiere vineyard appellations: Napa, Sonoma, and Monterey. Those areas are estimated by the state’s board of agriculture to have 7% crop loss. This is far worse in many sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Damage was mitigated by sub-climate zones and micro-climates zones. For example In Carmel Valley the influence of the Pacific Ocean limited damage to very minimal at Robert Talbott’s Diamond T vineyard (7 miles from the ocean) while further up the road (up valley 12-15 miles from the ocean) there are vineyards that experienced a near total loss.

David Graves, co-founder and principal of Saintsbury Vineyards and Winery said it best in a conversation Friday, “7% loss is bad but really what it means is if you’re the guy who got hit you lost everything.”

Areas with especially high-value fruit have extensive frost-protection measures in place. These typically take the form of overhead fans in Napa valley. First-hand accounts there report the frost fans running 20-plus days in a row. This almost never happens. Areas that are less affected by frost in a normal year have no frost protection measures in place. If you farm those vineyards and frost hits hard, the vintage is a write-off and its time to plan for next year.

So, where does that leave us for the 2008 vintage? Answer: we’ll see. Theoretically the vintage could be better quality in some vineyards due to “frost thinning” but in reality those vineyards are already managed to the correct low yield to maximize quality. So, back to Mr. Graves comment, for many producers the frost either wiped your 2008 vintage off the map or you survived in pretty good shape. Regardless, as you meet winemakers and principals from California this year, a good point of conversation will be the historic frost damage of 2008.


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