Wineries fight spring freeze

April 21, 2008 11:34:56 PM PDT
The cool down of the last couple of days has had a serious impact for some growers in wine country. They've been fighting frost every night and trying to save their crops.

You've heard the rhyme about 'April flowers and May showers,' but in the vineyards of Northern California, growers are reciting a different one this spring about April frost and grapes they have lost.

Monday afternoon, grower Duff Bevill showed us baby merlot, burned as buds. When frost hits, they freeze, explode and then dry out, as if a blow torch hit them. While, a few inches away, others survive. Small variations in temperature make all the difference.

It doesn't take long for frost to do its damage. Last night, the temperature in this vineyard dropped to 28 degrees, in about half an hour, seventy percent of the grapes here were ruined.

"You do everything you can that's in your powers to prevent it from happening, but when that happens, it's farming," said Duff Bevill, a grape grower.

Still, a more modern version than forty years ago, where grape growers used to spend nights checking thermometers in their vineyards, now, they have better technology. At 35 degrees, these instruments trigger computers, which call cell phones, and then the defense begins.

With millions of dollars of crops at risk in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties, propeller sounds have roared through the normally quiet darkness blowing the cold air away.

Elsewhere, growers sprinkle water on the vines, letting ice form as insulation against the even colder, and persistent springtime frost. There's nothing to do but fight it.

"It's just a fluke of nature. We've had more cold nights since the 31st of March than normal, but frost is something that is likely to occur somewhere in the county every year," said Nick Frey, a Sonoma County wine grower.

More cold nights and more long ones, too are still to come.