An unusually chilly weekend in late April proved devastating for some Santa Barbara County vineyards, with reported losses of thousands of tons of grapes to freezing temperatures.
The Santa Ynez Valley, which is home to many of the county’s largest and most notable vineyards, experienced frost in elevations as high as 1,300 feet – areas where anti-freezing methods aren’t normally necessary.
At Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos, 90 percent of the grapes grown on its upper mesa were destroyed. “I’d say we easily lost 200 tons worth of grapes and 200 tons is about 12,000 cases,” said Blair Fox, head winemaker for Fess Parker Winery. The winery is one of the top 10 largest in the Tri-Counties and typically produces between 60,000 and 70,000 cases – or 720,000 to 840,000 bottles – annually.
Overall in Santa Barbara County, about 10 to 12 percent of grapes were destroyed in the freeze, said Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. He said the unusually cold April temperatures caused widespread damage across the West Coast, including vineyards in Washington, Oregon and throughout California.
“No one can remember anything this late, and that’s why it’s so difficult to protect against it,” Fiolek said. “Some of the damange had to do not just with the cold but how late it came.”
In the early morning hours on Monday, April 21, temperatures plummeted below freezing in the Santa Ynez Valley. Many wineries have frost protection methods, but the icy temperatures came too quickly for some wineries to turn on all anti-freezing sprinklers.
“On Sunday [night], it dropped from like 35 to 25 in like an half hour. It was almost impossible to keep up with it,” Fox said. The winery is hoping that some secondary growth on the vines will replace the lost crop, but it’s already six to eight weeks behind schedule for the fall harvest.
Some of the region’s smaller wineries took the worst hit from the cold. At Demetria Estate in Los Olivos, seven of its 38 acres were ravaged. Second and tertiary growth on the vines tend to produce little if any fruit, so the winery plans to not sell any of its grapes and will keep whatever it has for its own wine production. It typically reserves 35 percent of its grape harvest for selling purposes.
At Rusack Winery, 30 to 40 percent of its grapes were destroyed.
“I would say this whole year, this frost season has been one of the worst on record,” Rusack Winemaker John Falcone said. “There were two nights in a row that were getting into more extreme temperatures, and one in particular was the worst.”
Rusack Winery grows grapes on just 17 acres, primarily on the slopes of a canyon, which rarely if ever see freezing temperatures. To recover lost grapes, Rusack plans to buy them from other wineries.
At one of the Tri-Counties’ largest vineyards, Firestone Winery in Santa Ynez used sprinklers to protect grapes against freezing temperatures for nearly three weeks throughout the month of April, said head winemaker Kevin Willenborg. Only about 10 acres of Firestone’s 500 were affected by the frost but about half of that crop was lost. “The damage is somewhat negligible for us,” Willenborg said. Firestone usually produces about 210,000 cases of wine annually – the second largest in Santa Barbara County, behind only Cambria Estate Vineyard and Winery in Santa Maria.
“Some of our guys have been here for more than 20 years and this is the worst frost season they can remember,” he added.
The decrease in grape yield could mean higher wine prices for 2008 vintages, Fiolek of the Vintners Association said. Last year’s grape harvest was worth nearly $100 million, which was about a 20 percent drop from the year before, which was lower than the year before that. “This will be the third decline in a row,” he said. However, prices for Santa Barbara County’s wines rose nearly as much as the difference in yield, almost erasing lost costs across the board. This year could be the same and might be masked with the rising prices of food and drink products nationwide.
This year marks the second straight where freezing temperatures have disrupted agricultural production. In 2007, a cold spell destroyed 70 percent of California’s orange crop and 60 percent of its avocados.