There’s an old saying that women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea. The same advice might apply to farmers and the weather.
An early run of warm weather this year seems to be a mixed blessing for local growers, with warm days causing both grape vines and fruit trees to blossom early. The variability of the weather, though, means there is a fear of frost killing off those blossoms before they can produce fruit.
Highs this month peaked at 24.9 C on April 8, two degrees higher than the previous record of 23 C for that day. But there have also been some lows, dropping below freezing on April 5.
“There was a zero in the forecast but last night it only got down to five degrees,” said Robert van Westen, whose family grows both cherries and grapes for their winery on their Naramata property. “One frost can wipe everything out.”
Frost is a constant fear for farmers, and they use a variety of methods to fight it, including fans to keep warmer air mixing in the vineyards.
“In the old days, this valley would be covered with smoke,” said van Westen. “They would burn tires, there would be smudge pots, anything trying to create a degree or two.”
Jeff Martin, of La Frenz Winery, is less concerned about the frost. He is hopeful for a repeat of last year, which also started with an early warm spell.
“Last year was probably the best year I have seen in 45 years of winemaking,” said Martin. “It was a phenomenal year, probably the earliest and this is almost a repeat of it.”
In fact, Martin said the vines are blossoming even earlier than last year.
“We have had bud bursts for about 10 days now,” said Martin. “That’s a full three weeks to a month earlier to what a typical season is.”
Martin said El Niño is the cause in both years.
“With this huge amount of water off the coast … it is one of the biggest bodies of warm water they have ever seen. That caused the early season last year,” said Martin. “10 days ago we were 22 and it’s 14 today. We can have that reversal, but with that huge body of water, I am feeling we are not going to have a problem.”
Van Westen is also seeing early blossoms.
“Cherries are in full bloom. That was the fastest bloom I have ever seen; it went from first bloom to full blossom in five days,” said van Westen, adding that last year’s heat compacted the growing season and didn’t give the cherries time to mature as well as he would like.
He’s concerned the same will happen with their grapes. The warm days help the grapes develop their sugar content, but they need time on the vine for the full flavour profile to mature.
“It is a delicate balancing act,” said van Westen, adding that the farther south you went, the tougher it was for growers to keep that balance. Last year, he said, they shaded the grapes to help extend their time on the vine.
Martin said that 2015 ended up being a great growing season, with a cool period following the heat of July and August.
“It was warm, but it was consistently warm, it didn’t go up and down. In September, we pretty much went back to a normal temperature. That allowed fruit to develop flavour. We got sugar-ripe very early, and the flavours were a bit lacking, but then September it went back to normal,” said Martin.
Martin said it’s anyone’s guess what is going to happen with weather through the summer, but he has high hopes.
“It is too early to say if it is going to be as good as last year, but it is looking like it is going to be as good if not better,” said Martin.