At Keller Estate, in the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast. The 2017 growing season started with heavy, wonderful rains that saturated the parched clay soils. 2017 will be known as a year of extremes and abundance. Record setting rains, followed by warm weather led to the abundance of cover crop, weeds, and vigor. Cultivation and vine row management was delayed in many blocks due to wet conditions limiting tractor access. Saturated soils delayed budbreak 1-2 weeks and bloom and verasion experienced the same delay. However, we experienced only average crop set due to the weather at bloom in 2016.
The average weather during bloom in May starts at 70 and raises to 80 degrees. 2017 had 10 days in May with temperatures above 85 degrees. This led to excessive vigor and laterals leading to an above average “second crop”, which added more manhours to our canopy management. Early wet conditions and high vigor contributed to a difficult canopy management season in a time when the labor force is at a premium.
Intermittent rain events created botrytis pressure, with even more demand on labor passes in the vineyard.
The high wet winter, caused the first 12 inches of the clay topsoil to become extremely hard and limited our ability the cultivation of our cover crops. Our irrigation regime started 2 weeks later, which was some benefit, because we would end up needing that water later in the season.
Verasion in the Petaluma Gap was late and slow to finish due to the abundance of early morning fog where many days didn’t blow off until 1pm. We were green thinning in mid-August and phenolic development was anticipated to be finished September 7-15 on most blocks.
The last weekend of August, most Pinot Noir blocks were still two weeks delayed and the sugars were 20-21 brix. August 26th started 15 days of extreme heat above 95 and 7 days above 104. Diligent watering saved us from catastrophic damage but prompted us to pick our early blocks immediately. The next week set off a furious picking schedule that could not keep up with demand. Labor Day weekend followed with three straight days above 105 degrees without any of the cool Petaluma Gap winds by night. We normally pick our Pinot Noir blocks in a span of about one month to ensure a range of phenolic maturity. In 2017 we picked our entire Pinot Noir in 10 days. In a cruel twist of fate, temperatures dropped after the heatwave to below average temps for 10 days. Many blocks that survived the heat went backward in brix and have turned out to be some of our most intense, opulent lots in our cellar.
When the heat wave hit, Chardonnay was only 17 brix, and got a jolt of sugar, without much phenological maturation. However, once the heat subsided and we had 10 days of below average temperatures with a breeze, Chardonnay was able to get back on schedule and has turned out to be an exceptional year from early indications. We are looking forward to some beautiful Keller Estate Chardonnays! One positive from the heat was the fact that it dried up any botrytis pressure that was previously in the vineyard.
Syrah was generally unaffected by the heatwave due to the fact it was still finishing verasion during the worst part. According to the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Association all reporting AVA’s in Sonoma have recorded the highest “degree day summation” on record for 2017.
Without those 15 days of extreme heat, our opinion is that 2017 would have been one of the better vintages of the decade. With the heat, we can say, the vintage went from exceptional to a wonderful vintage here at Keller Estate.
With all the forecasts predicting a strong El Nino winter, Keller Estate increased the pounds of cover crop seeds by 50% to insure maximum coverage and to help eliminate soil erosion from the potential heavy rains. The winter conditions turned out to be ideal in all regards with constant light rains mixed with good sunshine. The cover crop stood 2 feet tall by December. Good steady rainfall from Nov-Jan gave the Petaluma Gap a great start in exceeding its normal rainfall. However, February was very dry and resulted in zero rainfall after all forecasts predicted the heaviest El Nino event ever. February recorded 17 days above 70 degrees, topping out with 82 degrees on the 15th. This unseasonably warm weather led to early warming of the soil and we saw our first bud break in the last week of February.
The rains reappeared in March to help reinvigorate the early growth of the vines. These March storms came with unusually cool northern winds and helped counter act the warm February with a more traditional growth cycle.
New additions to Keller Estate’s commitment to sustainable vineyard practices are 20 “Baby doll” sheep to graze within the vineyards. They help in promoting root growth in our cover crop to set nitrogen in the soil and help to reduce the need for roundup beneath the vine row. They also help to eliminate the need for mowing the cover crop, hence reducing our carbon footprint. Currently, the sheep are grazing in the Olive orchards because they still are tall enough to reach the tender grape shoots.
April has been a fantastic growing period with most of our vines increasing to 3 feet or more of canopy growth. All the vines within the Estate have responded extremely well to our ideal early growing conditions but along with that comes an early spray regiment. This is a welcome trade-off since our early sprays are gentle organic oils.
The weather in May has been slightly unpredictable with the presence of early bloom coupled with light rain. The addition of warm weather following the rain reduces the negative impact of rain during bloom which effects fruit set, as was the case in 2015.