Biz Buzz: Grape farmers happy to get some ‘free irrigation’ from storms

Vineyard managers are crowing about the abundance of precipitation San Luis Obispo County has received this season.

“That nice fresh rain water beats irrigation any day,” said Scott Williams, who oversees 2,100 Edna Valley acres for Pacific Vineyard Co. “Mother Nature’s giving us free irrigation. Especially with these later rains, it lowers our management costs.”

With storms in December, February and March, the county’s gotten more rain than it typically receives all year.

Combined with rains in 2010, the moisture has replenished local aquifers that had been running low after several consecutive drought years.

Downpours help leech away salts that settle at the roots of a vine and accumulate in wells after periods of drip irrigation.

The minerals slow a vine’s growth, reducing the quality of leaf canopies and crop production, said John Crossland, who owns Vineyard Professional Services in Templeton.

“Having this rainfall two years in a row is wonderful,” added Crossland, whose company manages 2,500 acres in the Paso Robles area. “We’re sure hoping this puts us out of the drought for some time.”

Weather watchers have reported the following rainfall counts, according to John Lindsey local weather expert at PG&E and Tribune columnist:

17.7 inches in Hog Canyon east of Paso Robles, 110 percent of the annual average.

21.6 inches in Templeton, 147 percent of the annual average.

28.3 inches at Santa Margarita Lake, 123 percent of the annual average.

34.3 inches at Lopez Dam near Arroyo Grande, 163 percent of the annual average.

Stormy weather also reduces the chance of frost. That’s added savings when farmers don’t have to use wind machines or other methods to keep vines from freezing. In springtime, frost can damage tender grape buds before they develop into berries.

Bud break is just beginning in North County, which has fewer earlier ripening white varietals. In Edna Valley, Williams said, most of the chardonnay and pinot noir that predominates there has already budded out.

Erosion, mildew and flooding are potential negatives associated with moisture, but these haven’t posed much concern for growers so far. Most use covers to prevent erosion and spray sulfur or mineral oil to control mildew.

“We’ve heard there’s another chance of rain after the first week of April, but I don’t think it will affect us negatively,” said Hank Ashby, who manages 1,250 acres for French Camp Vineyards in Shandon. “I wish it was like this every year.”

— Raven J. Railey