Snowboarding down the vineyard rows on Howell Mountain at CADE Estate. Skiing across the upper blocks at Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Making snowmen on the usually desert-like ridges that rise above the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County.
These are just some of the social media-shared scenes happening across California since last week when a cold, wet storm dropped inches of snow on places that very rarely see it across the Golden State. Blizzard warnings were triggered in many regions, even around stereotypically sunny Los Angeles.
“We saw significant snowfall in the range of four to five inches in the vineyard—the biggest snowfall here in decades,” says Karl Wittstrom, the co-owner of Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita. “It was quite a sight. The last time it snowed in the vineyard was in 2008, and that was more of a light dusting that just lasted for a few hours.”
But how does this wild weather impact California’s vineyards? Though there have been weather-related hassles like traffic, road closures, fallen trees and other sorts of damage that can come from heavy downpours, the storm should actually spell goodwill in the vineyards, since bud break has not yet occurred.
“We are actually very happy for the precipitation and the cold this time of year,” says Susan Krausz, owner of Arkenstone, located near the mountaintop town of Angwin north of Napa. “The rain and snow fills our aquifers, and the cold keeps the vines asleep until the appropriate time for them to wake up in the spring warmth.”
Mark Neal of Neal Family Vineyards, also near Angwin on Howell Mountain, explains that “cold weather like this helps us with insect control and complete dormancy, which we have not had for a couple [of] years.” But he was heartbroken to see so many 200-plus-year-old oak trees come down in the storm and spent much of Friday morning chasing around a couple of his goat-sheep hybrids that were spooked by the weather.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Nathan Kandler, the winemaker at Thomas Fogarty Winery, had fun skiing with his kids, but then dealt with busted stretches of deer fence and multiple fallen trees. “There was more tree damage, mostly oak branches, than I have ever seen,” says Kandler. “But the vines are fine, as the cold will push bud break back a bit.”
This is usually better for the vintage, because the later buds avoid spring storms and push harvest beyond Labor Day, when there have been reliable heat spikes over the past few years. Plus, Kandler adds, “we can use all the precipitation. We are still at a deficit over the last 10 years.”
Down on York Mountain, a small appellation just west of Paso Robles, there was talk that this amount of snow hadn’t fallen in almost four decades, according to Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Estate Wines, though she’s seen smaller flurries before. “Since the vines are dormant, no harm,” she says. “The moisture is very welcome too.”
Her neighbor, Anthony Young of The Royal Nonesuch Farm, woke his family up at 5:50 a.m. on Friday morning as the rain turned to snow. ”Like it was Christmas morning,” he says with a laugh.
“Had this happened a week or two later, I’m sure many people on the mountain would be singing a different tune,” notes Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards, who saw numerous folks taking out skis and inner tubes to ride the fresh powder. “It will be a memory we will remember for life. “
Though, it wasn’t all joy. Viader saw a lot of the damage firsthand, working as a volunteer on the Deer Park fire engine. “We were all [with Angwin Fire] very busy responding to multiple trees that fell on powerlines, houses and parked cars,” he says. “Some people ignored the roadblocks and became stuck and stranded on the side of the road due to the heavy snowfall.”
He continues, “it was a busy night with some extremely dangerous conditions at times, as we had trees buckling to the weight of all the snow and falling all around us as we tried keeping roadways clear and open. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected a storm like this. I’ve lived here most of my life and this was unprecedented.”
Managing partner of CADE, John Conover estimates that the storm caused about $100,000 in damage, mainly due to fallen trees.
Additionally, the storm did come on the same weekend as Premiere Napa Valley, where wine buyers and sommeliers from around the world come to inspect and purchase upcoming vintages. “Bidders were not deterred by the weather,” says Teresa Wall, the senior director for communications for the Napa Valley Vintners. “If anything, the winter snowstorm added a majestic backdrop and a memorable component to the week. The hilltops surrounding the entire valley were blanketed in snow.”
In the end, some say the snow simply gave the land some much-needed water and the winemakers an opportunity to have some fun.
“There was no viticultural downside to the snowfall, as bud break is still a ways off. We also received around five inches of rain in the 36 hours leading up to the snow, which only added to what has been an amazing rain season across Paso Robles,” Wittstrom says. “The native vegetation that we maintain between the vine rows has proven to be effective against erosion in the face of these heavy storms, which have also cleaned out the waterways of accumulated debris—the streams, creeks and drainage are all flowing cleanly.”
He continues, “all in all, a lot of healthy moisture this year, capped off by this picturesque snow event, with even more rain landing this week.”