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Drought has North Coast grape growers on alert (w/VIDEO)

  • Douglas McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Wine Estates, uses drip irrigation from wells to water grapes and fans, in the background, for frost protection at a vineyard in Windsor on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

Grape growers throughout the North Coast are seeing signs that the drought could result in a smaller crop this year, and are taking precautions to mitigate the damage that could occur if the dry weather persists.

The lack of rainfall impacts growers' ability to irrigate their vineyards and protect the tender buds now beginning to sprout on the vines. In response, many grape growers and wineries are scrambling to max out on crop insurance and install wind machines to battle frost without using water.

“It is a really, really scary situation,” said Tony Linegar, agriculture commissioner for Sonoma County. “And it looks like the rain that is coming is not even enough.”

Because of the dry weather, grape growers are beginning to see bud activity earlier than normal. While buds typically “break” through the vines in March, grape growers in Carneros and parts of the Napa Valley floor are starting to see early signs of activity in chardonnay vines, said Dominic Bianco, vineyard manager at Renteria Vineyard Management.

That puts the vines at earlier risk for frost, which can devastate a crop. And without water to spray on the vines, it's more difficult to protect the region's vineyards from frost.

“If we continue to see drought conditions in 2014 we will see a small crop,” Bianco said.

The Napa Valley has received about 3 inches of rain this winter, compared to the 15 inches it normally would have at this time, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

“We're coming off a very dry base,” Putnam said. “The last time we saw levels like this was in 1976 and 1977.”

In Sonoma County, grape growers have had about 2 inches of rain since July, only 13 percent of the normal amount.

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