Being a grape farmer in the Sierra Foothills is normally advantageous when it comes to many normal climatic challenges. First, grapes like to grow and adapt and although, there are many microclimates in hill country, we don’t generally have to worry about things like summer hailstorms or rain during harvest. Things that more humid areas battle with a vengeance, like Powdery Mildew can be easily dealt with as our humidity is low. We generally enjoy a warm, Mediterranean climate, which is part and parcel to why we have planted Mediterranean varietals at Vina Castellano
One of the things that we have always prided ourselves on at Vina Castellano, is that we sit in a bit of a draw and that gives us anywhere from an 8-10 degree temperature change on those summer nights. It is great for the grapes, (although it can make for an unexpected chill at our movie nights). The advantage we normally have, compared to our friends on hilltops or in the valley is that these summer night downward temperature spikes mean that our grapes maintain good acids and get extended hang-times even despite our 253 days of sun each year and our typically hot summer days.
It sounds idyllic, but it comes with one caveat: Spring Frosts. For twenty-one of the twenty-two years as a commercial vineyard, we have enjoyed minimal damage due to frost. Over the years in the Monica Block of the Garnacha, which I refer to as “Abuelita Grove” we have seen some frost damage. The first time it happened I actually felt more amused then aggravated, albeit it was just a small amount of minor damage. Why? Because, Abuelita Grove is named for my grandmother and borders part of the fence line to the property she called home and she frequently lamented that it was much colder on her property.
That property is now owned by my sister Monica for whom the block is named, and her husband Marc . Abuelita always was adamant that her property was 15 degrees cooler then the rest of the 60 acre family compound. Something we all scoffed at….well, until the Frost of 2022.
Every year when the weather dips below freezing I get calls from folks concerned about the vines. Many people don’t understand the lifecycle of vines. During dormancy, freezes are not only not injurious, but they are in fact advantageous. The keep the vines asleep at during a time whne being awake would kill them. Dormancy helps the vines tolerate cold weather and ensure that there will be bud break and normal spring growth.
Let me throw a little farming science at you. There are two stages of dormancy. Endodormacy, which is the stage where growth is controlled by plant growth regulators inside the buds. They play a key role in the metabolic changes and are responsible for the grapevine entering into endodormancy which is how they survive the winter. Then there is the second phase, Ecodormancy. In this phase environmental conditions do not allow the vine to enter budbreak. In this phase the grapevines are chomping at the bit to grow, but low temperature inhibits bud development.
While most of the community takes pleasure in unseasonably warm days in the mid to late winter, crop farmers of many commodities, including us grape farmers, cringe if it goes on for much more then a couple of errant days. The weather straying from its proper course for too long is to every farmer’s dismay. Weather concern does begin and end with the fear of drought in sunny California. Too many warm spring-like days send Vineyard managers across the state into a place of concern that the grapevines will start budding too soon and be vulnerable to late frost. When the sun shines and the earth warms, vineyard workers get going like crazy to get ahead and get the pruning done. Pruning is necessary not only to manage the growth but also to help the natural alternate bearing cycles of fruit. Late pruning or pre-pruning can set back bud break and help push the fear of a late frost down, but until summer, there is always a tiny fear.
The problem in 2022 at Vina Castellano was that we had an early bud break in mid-March, followed by a late frost in early May. It was literally a frozen kiss of death and took most of our 2022 vintage. It was the first major catastrophe in our 22 years as farmers. However, it followed two years of minor setbacks due to the California wildfires. We are still trying to assess the full effect of these roaring 20’s.
For most folks the the worst part of the 20’s has been the Covid Pandemic. For Vina Castellano, it has been Mother Nature. After so many years with virtually no noticeable frost damage, we took for granted the well known fact that any new growth is susceptible to frost damage. For us this is just a reality we must bear, as our tools to deal with frost are basically limited to my Rosary. I am an unapologetic prayer. I often wonder if God will greet me with the phrase “You really didn’t have to express every thought you ever had to me” However, in May the vines were not even on my prayer list.
We were totally caught off guard. My husband awoke at 5:00am to hard frost on his window. As he drove past the vineyard he did not see the bright green leaves that had been filling in the vineyard for over a month. He called me immediately and I grabbed my keys and started out the door. However, the cold stopped me in my tracks. There was ice on my porch. I cowardly turned around and headed back inside with a sense of knowing dread. I waited until a reasonable hour and then began calling others. .It took me two days and several calls from my work husband, Victor to come and look at the damage. I can admit now that I walked row by row in tears. I knew it was bad. I just did not know how bad.
It would take months to determine the extent of the damage locally and to learn for certain that Vina Castellano Vintage 2022 was not to be. Sadly, we took the worst hit. But I am grateful that others faired better. The reality of the vast microclimates locally has never been better illustrated. Finally during Harvest of 2022 there was fruit in the field, however uneven ripening and such small amounts made it anything but cost effective to process. It was the most difficult season in the vineyard, aside from the loss of my beloved vineyard partner and father in 2011
Writing this has brought back emotions that are still raw as we are not finished with the effects of 2022 quite yet. As I write Victor and my son Cooper are pruning the vines. The full extent of the damage continues to reveal itself as Victor finds cordons (arms) which need to be fully cut off and retrained. I know my artistic children, Chance and Cooper will make something beautiful of these piece of our history. Re-training new cordons in their place, from the base of the vine will mean no production from those plants this year. Likewise, we are lost spurs, which are the vines that grow off the cordon and produce the fragile buds. So following three bad years in terms of production quantities, we will likely have the smallest vintage ever. With our old world barrel aging program this would normally be felt in 2025 or 2026, but we may have to do some vintages that are 18 months to 2 years in the barrel as we grow back our business.
We have a few ideas in the works that I will discuss in later blogs which include starting one or two second labels with wine we produced for another winery and with me buying some non-estate fruit. Vina Castellano has been an estate-only, single vineyard winery for 22 years, so we will have to get off of auto-pilot at 4590 Bell Road.
The winery is the only venue in my life where I would describe myself as a control freak. The tasting room is managed by Lisa Duron and the Vineyard is managed by Victor Brambila, but the label is controlled by me. My longtime mentor and consultant, Derek Irwin, has returned to my speed dial to help me through some decisions. I’m truly grateful for his friendship and advice. He revealed to me recently that he promised my Dad that he would be here for me, even when I felt I could finally fly solo. I’m blessed. We are blessed. Vina Castellano is blessed. 2022 in so many ways made all of use at the ranch true farmers. I don’t really think you truly sense what it is to farm, until you experience loss that brings you to your knees. But really is that not the story of life?
I am not yet sure how the story “After the Frost” ends. I do know I will sleep better in 2023 and every year hereafter, when the warm nights of summer are upon us. I also know that we have such a loyal, gracious and exceptional group of supporting customers and fellow vineyardist’s and winery owners who have helped us through so much, from my Father, Gabe Mendez’s passing to coming out and buying wine in the parking lot during Covid. I know whatever decisions I make, I will have the community I so love at my back.