Temps taking toll on grapes

May 05, 2003 11:00 pm

By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER

April showers brought torrential rain to the foothills.

Calaveras and Tuolumne county wine grape growers say they haven't panicked yet over waterlogged crops, but they are watching vines — and clouds — with wary eyes.

Last month was the ninth wettest April since The Union Democrat began keeping records in 1886. Tuolumne County officials recorded 6.01 inches, and Calaveras County received 8.63 inches. In a month that usually brings an occasional storm and warming temperatures, Mother Lode residents finished it out with umbrellas and sweaters.

That makes wine-grape growers nervous.

Dolores Mast, who tends 6 acres of grapes at Brice Station Vineyards — 4 miles above Murphys — said she owns the highest vineyard in Calaveras County.

"I'm pushing the limits of farming grapes here," she said. "I'm on the potential edge of danger every year."

Mast said her biggest threat isn't rain, but frost.

"Some of the plants pushed out and the shoots were killed by cold weather," she said.

Farther down the hill in Murphys, Stephen Column, president and owner of Vineyard Concepts — a management and consulting company for vineyards and wineries — said he's just waiting for what wet weather can bring.

"There's bugs called thrips, and they have a tendency to chew on the tips" of the plants, he said.

That gnawing could slow or stunt vine growth.

Cool springs also keep Column looking out for fungi that cause shoot rot.

"It attacks the shoot, eats through it, then the shoot breaks off," he said.

Late rains can also mean good news for weeds, which re-grow in already-treated spots, Column said.

But compared with western Sonoma county, where Column once worked, this year's precipitation is normal.

What he worries about, like Mast, is the cold.

"The people who don't have frost protection are crossing their fingers," Column said.