SPECIAL TO THE INDEX-TRIBUNE
February 18, 2021, 5:03PM
Updated 3 hours ago
In the days and weeks to come, do not be alarmed when you see smoke rising as you look to the east. The fires of the fall, those wild and terrifying infernos, will be replaced by controlled burns in the vineyard land. No reason to pack those irreplaceable items this time. In fact, grab a camera.
The current stark scene of vineyard debris piled into big heaps is quite a departure from the picturesque views we think of when we envision vineyards. The views along Ramal Road right now are more reminiscent of Bruegel or van Gogh. They are a photographer’s delight.
Much of Carneros has been undergoing replanting. Ned Hill, of La Prenda Vineyards, was reached while in his work truck surveying vineyards he farms in Healdsburg. He said, “It’s crazy isn’t it? It seems half of the Carneros is torn out down there.”
Those big heaps of old vines will soon be burned and the ashes disced back into the soil. After a period of time, the land might be replanted, perhaps resulting in higher yields and hopefully varietals the consumer will be clamoring for in a few years.
Hill said, “Almost all, 100 percent of the vineyards that are down there along that Ramal Road loop are winery owned.” That is, not owned by grape growing farmers. Several of the wineries in the Carneros grow their own fruit. But they might also have purchasing contracts with growers, providing enough grapes to keep their production up to meet anticipated demand.
“If a winery had contracts to buy fruit, and they might not have need for as much of their own fruit, they might consider it a good time to redevelop their own property,” Hill said.
Wine sales took a hit a couple years ago, and many wineries saw the slack demand as a good time to replace their own vines. There are several reasons a decision to rip a vineyard could be made: decreased market demand, replanting and the presence of disease.
“Market demand” is a fancy term for what sells. Consumers delivered flat sales to the wine industry in 2019. The relatively new category of hard seltzer, the White Claws of the world, grabbed some important sales. Poor wine sales might have created an opportune time for wineries to switch out underperforming varietals in favor of possible future trends.
Vineyards also have a productive life. The yield of a vineyard, or tons per acre, will decrease slightly as a vineyard ages. Most of the vineyards in the Carneros were planted in the 1980s. With these vineyards at the yield tipping point, and the market down slightly, another good time to replant younger vines of the same sales-proven varietal presented itself.
A third reason for ripping out a vineyard is disease. Grapevine Leafroll Associated Virus (another virus!) is a prevalent issue that growers currently face, particularly in the Carneros. There different strains of the virus. Some of the colorful names of those strains are Red Blotch, Speck virus and, my favorite, Corky Bark.
Vineyards with these viruses can experience yield losses of 30 to 50 percent. Additionally, ripening can be delayed and uneven. There is no way to cure an infected vine.
Ned Hill explained, “There’s a dozen common viruses that are present in grapevines. They get spread easily out there by the wind. The disease is spread by insects, and they get blown around… so disease is spread pretty easily out in the Carneros.”
Removal and subsequent destruction of the vines is the only choice. Top-grafting, when a grower might want to switch from chardonnay to viognier, for example, is not recommended because the rootstock may be infected.
After clearing the land, growers might leave it lie fallow to rejuvenate naturally. Hill said, “But the markets come back pretty quick, so I can’t imagine it would be fallow for too long.”
When asked about global warming as a possible problem causing the need for vineyard redevelopment, Hill responded, “No, not out there. Carneros is a cold place to grow grapes. If anything, some warming might help.” Some rare good news about global warming.
With the mustard about to bloom, and the picturesque piles of old vines providing an otherworldly look to the terrain, the next few weeks will be a lovely time to take a drive to the Carneros. This time, in part, thanks to a virus.
Sonoma resident Tim Curley is an ex-wine professional, ex-wine drinker, current “wondering wanderer.”