nothing worthwhile was ever easy

nothing worthwhile was ever easy
It’s now almost April, and we’re about to close out the rainy season with yet another drought year. Seven out of eight years! Everyone was hopeful that the 43” of rain from the 2016/17 season was a sign of the long drought coming to its conclusion. But it wasn’t to be.

At the close of 2017 we were at 1.07” for the season and at the end of February, our accumulated rainfall was still only 5.59”.  The month of February came in at just .3” of rain, with temperatures well into the 70s and 80s. I was seriously concerned we’d be seeing bud break by the end of February, and this would go down as the lowest amount of precipitation we’ve experienced in the fourteen years we’ve been in the Central Coast. It’s fair to say that there was a bit of worrying going on in the Jussila household!

Thankfully, starting February 18th, average temperatures dropped by nearly twenty degrees, and the winter pattern finally began. The first day of March brought us 3” of rain, which was the first of three big storms. We’ll close March with 10.87” of rain for the month. The March Miracle! Normally I wouldn’t be high-fiving anybody with a 16.46” season, but relative to the 5” season we thought we had, this has been a pretty sweet turnaround!

I wanted to start with a conversation about weather, because it has been a big topic for us Californians the last eight years, and it doesn’t seem to be fading into the background quite yet. I wanted to also talk about it, because it has been intertwined with another conversation that has been going on for several years. That conversation has been more of a whisper, but the voices are getting louder.

Stepping back to 2012, the first drought year, it’s clear now that a worrisome pattern was developing. That pattern didn’t really become a deep-rooted concern for most grape growers until perhaps around 2015.

By 2014, it was becoming obvious to me that we were experiencing a slow creep up in the pH of our grapes and a slow decline in the acidity of the grapes, relative to a target sugar level we were looking for at harvest. I suspected that the drought somehow was the culprit. I discussed this with a number of grape farmers and viticulturists, and although they didn’t have any conviction about this, they thought it credible. By 2016, I was really concerned, because the pattern continued.

During that period, another conversation about red blotch disease was spreading. I was curious, not because I thought it was relevant to my vineyard. Just curious. GRBaV, commonly called red blotch, is a virus that is a major threat to the wine industry, as worrisome as phylloxera was in the 80s and 90s. The virus compromises crop yields, chemical composition and the plants ability to achieve desired levels of ripeness, color, and tannin composition.

Red blotch was first discovered in 2008, and formally identified in 2011. It seems to affect most, if not all, varietals and is pervasive in California, now spreading into Oregon and Washington, and is present in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Arkansas, Idaho, and Texas. You can bet that list will grow. At this point, there is no known cure.

UC Davis has done extensive research on red blotch and has isolated plant material that they know to be free of all known viruses. It’s called Protocol 2010. They make this plant material available to all nurseries, who can then propagate from that material.
They also know that the likely vector is what’s called the three-cornered alfalfa hopper. Interestingly, there isn’t much of a population of these bugs in the Central Coast. They are, however, abundant in the San Joaquin Valley where many of the large nurseries that grow grapevines reside. So, the most likely scenario is that I, and many grape growers who planted around the time that I did, bought infected material. There was a huge growth of vineyard acreage starting in 2000 and the nurseries, unknowingly, were propagating this material allowing the virus to spread like wildfire.

At first, I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to red blotch, because the basic assumption about the disease was that the fruit would just stall. They wouldn’t progress beyond a certain level of ripeness. There was no real understanding within the farming community that pH was rising relative to certain levels of ripeness. In my case, we have no problem achieving desired levels of sugar. We also have not had prolonged hang time in order to achieve that level of sugar. So naturally, I concluded I was dealing with something else. Nevertheless, by the end of 2016, I sent in nine block samples to a lab for analysis. All nine came back positive for GRBaV.

After the initial panic subsided, I dug in to take inventory and start a plan of attack. What I know is that, other than some issues with high pH, the fruit is coming in just fine. We easily reach desired levels of ripeness, color is really good, and tannin structure actually has become more pronounced for us in the last few vintages. I believe the last couple vintages for kukkula are possibly the best wines I’ve made thus far. Also, we farm twenty acres of vines on property owned by our good friends, Ron and Cami. These vines, which were planted later than ours don’t exhibit any signs of red blotch. The fruit is beautiful, dark, have nice tannin structure, acidity, and easily achieve ripeness. As tough as this news was to me, I’m lucky that I have time to regroup, though I’ve concluded that I need to be aggressive about making changes before the problem shows up in our wines. 

A few years ago, I wrote a newsletter which I called “shades of gray”, where I talked about coming to terms with my feelings about a need for strict gun control rules, and how “my” reality in Southern California was fairly different than my reality in Paso Robles with my new life as a farmer.  In a similar way, I’m at a crossroads now with what to do, how to do it, over what time frame, and what other changes I might make, given that I’ve decided to replant.

I have already taken out our Zinfandel block, and I am teetering on removing our first block of Grenache before bud break. I’m vacillating about whether to take out more walnut trees and start my new plantings there to create a safe space from the infected blocks. Even though it appears that the three-cornered alfalfa hopper is a vector, I’ve never found them in my vineyard, and there is no conclusive evidence that they are having a material, if any, impact on the spread of the disease. I’m told safe space is up to a mile, but I don’t have that luxury. I figure some space is better than replanting right next to other virused blocks.

So my plan is to pull a few blocks a year, try to give the soil a rest and create as much of a buffer as possible between old and new blocks. It also gives me the opportunity to do things a little differently this time around. I’m considering putting in some sort of emergency irrigation system just in case we really do have a 5” rain year!

My dad always said “nothing worthwhile was ever easy”. We’ve probably all grown up hearing this. Even though I hate that sentiment, I guess I believe it. We’ve also all probably grown up hearing that “if it were easy, everybody would do it!” Maybe not everybody, but certainly a lot more everybodies. The world of farming is, relatively speaking, a small fraternity, as is the winemaking world. It isn’t easy, but it’s a privilege living where we do, rewarding bringing a crop in, and rewarding to create beautiful wines from all that hard work. I guess I better start climbing that next big hill!