How have the recent weeks of unseasonably warm weather affected the vineyard?
"Well uh yeah the lack of rain and the early heat tried to wake up the vines but these cold temps and the blow 30 nights have put them back to sleep, they tried to wake up and they have gone back to sleep if we get the rain in the forecast that will help. Vines wakeup due to soil temp, so rain or frost will keep the vines from waking up showing “Bud Break”.
We are currently at 7 inches of rain which is 40% of our normal rainfall, we want to be somewhere between 20 and 25 inches of rainfall by the end of the season, so we are keeping our fingers crossed for the rain. Right now our irrigation ponds give us an ability to have a 2-year supply, and the little rain events that we have had have not increased the reserves, the soil moistures are decent. So we will be good throughout the season. Our landscaping crew will have to use reclaimed water this year to keep the grounds looking good."
What is your prediction of How this will affect the rest of the growing season?
"Right now we have dodged a bullet by avoiding early bud break. If it stays cool through March, we can expect that we will be normal to our growing season. However, depending on how hot it is through April and June will determine when we have to start watering. Generally, our first watering is after 4th of July. Since we are not in a frost zone here at Keller Estate so there is no worry about freezing.
We are going to be doing a water event to add nutrients to the soil in April if all goes well. We might have to go to a more Flair nutrient application depending on if we need to conserve our drip line water. We will need to be a little more dynamic with our farming this year and be able to react to how warm then next few months are. "
Do you have a Bottling Update?
"The 2017 Chardonnay blends will be started in March and will be bottled by the End of May. We are doing a custom blend for the Sonoma County Vintners Barrel Auction that will be happening in April if anyone is interested. It is a unique blend that I make every year for this event, and I am very excited for how this turned out.
We only rack only once and are tasting the barrels and evaluating which barrels are performing well and getting the blends together in my head."
What the biggest challenge right now?
"Our biggest challenge right now is our transition to organic farming, it is a real challenge. We have to break down the estate into three parts, soil nutrition, and herbicides, pesticide/fungicide. So the soil nutrition is probably the easiest to handle and that is going to be a pretty easy transition, however, the fungicide is also relatively easy to transitions over, the biggest challenge is the herbicide. There are very few organic herbicides that are effective, generally, it comes down to manual manipulation i.e. weed whackers or tractor attachments. Either way, there is an additional strain on the labor force to be able to take that on. We are working on the best scenario, to allow for this transition to be made. The growth under vine can increase mold risk and cause competition in the vine. It really comes down to a big monetary investment to transition to organic.
This is the right time of the year to do this, and we are working out our game plan for the complete transition. We are going to a 100 percent organic fungicide program for this year and hopefully implement our plan for organic herbicide as our next steps. I am focusing right now less on the wines, as they are doing very well, and more on sustainability, this year’s action plans, and our transition to organic farming."
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.
At Keller Estate, we have two sources of water: ponds and wells. The priorities around here are: Humans, Animals, Vines, Olives and last but not least landscaping. Because of our proximity to the ocean, our soils and our wells tend to have a lot of minerals and there is hard, we use this water for house use. We have to buy all the drinking water, trust me, you do not want our well water in your coffee, but for all human activities we use this water.
Our rain water is collected, and we are thrilled to say that our ponds are completely full, the soil is saturated. However, this does not mean that we will irrigate the vineyards later, or less: Harvest 2017 will be determined by many factors such as the temperatures in March and April, more rain, summer. One of our ponds is specifically kept for wildlife preservation, so, we will continue to see birds using it throughout the year as a safe haven.
At this stage, what is concerning is that the pressure the water is exerting on our ponds is so much that we fear mudslides and possible damage to our ponds. Water is over flowing but we have a small crack on one curtain, which is alleviating some pressure. However, as rain continues to pour, we continue to worry.
For a long time now, we’ve taken our planted for granted and need to understand that the drought, followed by the massive storms, all are related to our habits as humans. Do not use more water than you need, check your toilets, plant drought tolerant plants, take a slightly shorter shower, question your winery how they save water.