Bruce Fry examines chardonnay vines.
Bruce Fry examines chardonnay vines hit by a mid-April frost in a vineyard northwest of Lodi. Fry said his vine damage is minor compared to what happened to some of his neighbors, some of whom will have little to no viable winegrapes this year after a deep freeze on April 11-12. (Photo: Kevin Hecteman)
Kevin Hecteman
Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

The 2022 vintage in some of California’s winegrape-growing regions took a massive hit from a mid-April frost that will leave some farmers with nothing to harvest.

Bruce Fry, who grows winegrapes near Lodi, said some of his vines lost their grape clusters—still in early stages of development—to the freeze. Overnight temperatures the night of April 11-12 reached 27.7 to 30 degrees around Lodi, with some lows lasting three to four hours. While he’s more fortunate than others, he still has damage.

“It burned all the way down the top of the shoot, all the way down to the spur position on the cordon,” where the shoot starts growing after pruning, Fry said. He likened the frost to “a blanket of cold air.”

“My dad’s seen some frost in years past where it looks like a river of cold air—it flows, finds the low spots and flows around—but this was like a cover of cold air just landed on these vines and crops, and just burnt them,” Fry said.

Near Thornton, in northern San Joaquin County, farmer Frank Olagary said losses to his grapevines run well north of 90%.

“There could be maybe 10 acres I could harvest that was along a levee, and then another 10 acres or so around my house,” Olagary said. Otherwise, “it’s a complete wipeout,” he added. “The frost I had in the past, I was able to harvest and get half a crop, or maybe a little bit less. This year, I don’t see that happening.”

Winegrape growers on the valley floor and in the foothills east and southeast of Sacramento are reporting significant losses of their 2022 crops. Amador and Calaveras counties have sent requests for disaster declarations to the state, and more may be in the works.

Jim Spinetta, a Plymouth winegrape grower and president of the Amador County Farm Bureau, said the frost was the worst he’d seen since the 1980s.

“It wasn’t necessarily the temperature; it was the time,” said Spinetta, whose crops endured four hours at 26-27 degrees.

Amador County winegrape farmer Jay Wilderotter said the point of concern on the thermometer is in the high 30s. “The coldest part of the day is sunrise,” Wilderotter said. “If it’s 35, 36 degrees at 2 o’clock in the morning, you’re going to have some problems.”

Wilderotter, who grows about 20 different winegrape varietals, said this frost was different from most.

“Most of the time, the frost would just settle on the ground, but this was a pretty deep layer of cold air,” Wilderotter said. “It just wiped out everything.”

Spinetta said this was an advective frost, brought by a mass of cold air and freezing temperatures from the Gulf of Alaska.

“Wind machines did not make a difference in this type of an advective frost and at those temperatures for that amount of time,” Spinetta said. “The problem is that there’s actual vascular damage in our plants and on our ranch.”

That means the 2023 vintage is in trouble, Spinetta said.

“On all of our vines,” he said, “the spurs have damage. This is not just the bud; this is next year’s crop. We have to retrain all these vines to bring up a new spur. It’s just going to be a mess this year and next year.”

In Thornton, Olagary said, “we had a couple helicopters flying out here to push down warm air, and it seemed like that did not help at all this time.” He’s done this before, with some success, but this year’s cold air was too deep.

Amador County Agricultural Commissioner Eric Mayberry reported the average crop loss at 60%. A third of the grape and walnut growers his office surveyed reported a complete loss for the season, he noted.

In Calaveras County, Agricultural Commissioner Jesse Fowler reported an average of 60% damage to winegrapes.

Tim Pelican, San Joaquin County’s agricultural commissioner, said damage levels in his county likely won’t meet the 30% threshold for a disaster request, but because his county borders others that have declared disasters, San Joaquin County farmers can take advantage of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for farmers who lose crops to adverse weather.

Pelican has already filed a disaster-declaration request for the county’s cherry crop, after the late-February frost caused about a 50% crop loss. Rain and hail just after Easter may have been a backbreaker.

“Since we’re already going to have a light crop, depending on how much damage there is, some of the crop may just not get harvested,” Pelican said.

Mayberry said that while crop insurance and USDA programs can help, they won’t make the farmer whole. Crop insurance does not cover 100% of a farmer’s losses, he pointed out, and USDA assistance comes in the form of low-interest loans.

“Any dollar they get is going to have to be paid back with interest,” Mayberry said. “It’s not like they’re getting free money.”

Wilderotter said there isn’t much more to do than “wait till next year.”

“Some plants will put out a secondary shoot and put out some grapes,” he said. “But usually it’s the primary shoot that has your prime grapes on that gets knocked down. There’s not a whole lot you can do.”

Spinetta said wineries will be scrambling for grapes this year, thanks to the frost and the likelihood that harvesting remaining grapes won’t pencil out for many people.

“Let’s say that I have 40% of my crop out there,” Spinetta said. “A crew isn’t going to want to go out there and pick a 40% crop. I have to pay double or triple what the going rate is, and then it’s unprofitable to go out there and harvest. A lot of vineyards are going to go unpicked this year, because we can’t afford to do it.”

Shutting down the vineyard, of course, is not an option, Spinetta noted. “We still have to use crop-care materials,” he said. “We still have to water the vines. We still have to take care of these crops.”

Olagary will be on watch for mildew and mealybug issues. Two things he may need less of: water and fertilizer.

“Since we don’t have the grapes, (the vines) can survive without fertility, which is a good thing since the fertilizer this year is quite expensive,” Olagary said.

As to irrigation, Olagary added, “we’re going to water a little bit less in the beginning, because there isn’t any canopy growth, but as the leaves and shoots start growing, then we’ll bump up the water.”

Ben Kolber, who has affected grapevines west of Lodi and in the Isleton area, is farming with the 2023 harvest in mind.

“It’s a hard situation to be in, because we’re farming not only on whatever’s left for this year for our crop, our residual crop for this year, but also we are constituting on growing strong wood for next year, so we can have a crop for next year,” Kolber said.

“We can’t really do much differently,” Kolber said. “We still have to keep on trucking here.”

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