Kukkula Wines

Sunday April 1, 2018

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 201617 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!


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