Where is Winter in the Napa Valley?

Last weekend, we participated in another family-style wine pairing and cooking class at one of our favorite restaurants, Rosso, in Santa Rosa. The theme was appropriate to the winter season; “Soups, Stocks and Stews”, imagining us all coming out on a wet and chilly Saturday morning into the kitchen to eat hearty winter fare. The home-made chicken noodle soup, warm beet soup and veal stock beef stew hit the mark with the selection of local Pinot Noir and Burgundies offered, and we all headed home ready to recreate the basics and warm our innards throughout the rest of the winter.
The only problem is that we haven’t had a winter! Sure, we have had below freezing cold spells, forcing us to cover our citrus and other delicate landscaping, temperatures in the teens and twenties which dropped all the leaves from the vines and convinced them to go dormant, but we have yet to receive over ½” of rain since October. The Napa Valley normal annual rainfall is somewhere around 36-40” (usually only occurring October through May), but last year we received only 5 inches making it the driest vintage on record. We appreciated the lack of rain last fall during harvest, allowing the 2013 vintage to ripen perfectly without the normal threat of showers and cool weather, but this has gone on far too long.

winter stream 2010The brittle, brown leaves from the vines and deciduous trees still line the roads and stream beds, waiting to be swept away by winter rains. (note the difference between the photos of our little stream bed last year and this!) Where there should be a stark clash of lush green clovers and yellow mustard between the vine rows against the dry, skeletal outline of the dormant vines, there is nothing but parched, gray soil . The cover crop seed, which was planted between the vine rows last fall to hold the soil during winter rains and rejuvenate the soil next spring, has sprouted and died off due to lack of rain. Irrigation ponds are all but dry, bringing fear to vineyard mangers who rely on full ponds for their irrigation during frost season in the spring, to protect the newly budding vines.

winter 2014We have even had warnings from the Forestry Department who put the Napa Valley on a high-fire alert – in January! Wells are drying up, unable to replenish their water supply without winter rains. The Sierra snow pack is less than 12% of normal; bring fears for municipal water supplies throughout the state that count on snow melt for their water needs each year. Lawns and landscaping are brown, as water rationing starts to go into effect.

No one is complaining about the high pressure system over the west coast, bringing us chilly mornings and lovely warm days into the high 60’s and low 70’s, especially in the wake of those negative temperatures and blizzards across the mid-west and east coast! We are able to BBQ and entertain out of doors and go about our days in shirt sleeves or a light jacket, as though it was almost spring. We dust off our shoes after walking the vineyards, instead of leaving our muddy boots out on the back porch. Even the chickens have started laying again, giving us half a dozen eggs a day.

But what we really need is rain, for all the farmers who depend on Mother Nature’s generosity to stock up this precious resource for the 2014 vintage and growing season. So, if anyone knows the steps to a traditional Rain Dance, please send them our way!