While we live through yet another season of frost danger, Ruben boldly risks devastating losses in the name of quality.
In early April, Ruben commanded La Cuadrilla to pass through every block of Syrah and nip off secondary clusters. All that remains: just one tiny grape cluster per shoot. By doing this before bloom, when the green orbs flower into even smaller grapes, Ruben concentrates the vines’ energy on each perfectly placed, solitary cluster. As long as the maritime winds kicking off of point conception don’t hit gale force, the reduced number of flowers will set into dense, tightly packed grapes.
If temperatures dip below 32, as they did in late April of 2008 and 2011, Ruben will regret the action. With every cluster La Cuadrilla clips off, the crew eliminates one more chance of fruit surviving through the season.
After frost devastated the vineyard a second time in 2011, Ruben postponed thinning the potential crop to one cluster per shoot until he knew we were in the clear. We couldn’t afford another 25-33% loss of yield. After two terrific harvest in 2012 and 2013, Ruben decided it was time to throw caution to the wind and focus the vines’ energy even earlier. This move could end up raising the bar of quality even a step higher than the Syrahs currently in barrel.
Defying the Natural Pattern
To be honest, Ruben’s decision scared me. I assumed Ballard Canyon would bear the brunt of the three year cycle of frost damage. If frost ravages the trimmed clusters after a two year respite, there will be scarcely any fruit to harvest.
Now looking at the long-term forecast, it seems as though Ruben’s bet will pay off. Never doubt the Grape Whisperer.
Looking forward: 2014 Harvest
The vines are now in hyper drive. Much like 2013, the vines sensed the lack of winter rainfall, woke up early, and now want to ripen fruit quickly before they run out of water. Judging from the current growth, we will begin picking in August so the stressed vines can return to dormancy early.
An early harvest leaves us vulnerable to the other peril of viticulture in Santa Barbara County: the Santa Ana weather pattern. Over the past two decades, we’ve carefully selected late-ripening varietals and clones that can live through the late-summer Santa Ana heat spike, recover, and ripen a month later. We never want to harvest during the trauma of triple digit heat and warm night-time winds blowing off the desert to the east.
Never a dull moment when it comes to farming!