Rain in May could mean big problems for North Bay winemakers

The unseasonably heavy rain is causing some concern in wine country. 

Some of the earliest varietals are already flowering on the vine, and moisture at this stage could shrink the grape crop.  

"This is one of those things you just have to sit back and hope it's not a problem," said Joe Nielsen, Director of Winemaking at Ram's Gate Winery in Sonoma. 

Nielsen, like other winemakers and vineyard managers across Napa and Sonoma Counties, are watching the rain totals rise.  

"No impact on wine quality, just possible impact on yield,," said Nielsen, "but it's agriculture so we have no control." 

At Ram's Gate Winery, pinot and chardonnay vines are already full and leafy and show the tiny flowers that germinate into fruit.

But any weather extreme can disrupt the process, resulting in fewer berries. 

"We just want no weather, boring weather during flowering is preferred," said Nielsen. 

But the conditions are anything but boring, more like mid-winter than mid-May, and the outdoor patios where visitors would be sipping and sightseeing are dripping wet and deserted.

"So we just go back to our winter programming and suck it up," laughed Ram's Gate Managing Director Taylor Cuneo.

Fireplaces in and outside the tasting room provide a glow that the weather can't. 

"Mother Nature's going to do what mother nature does so we'll flex with it," said Cuneo, "but it's frustrating. I think we're all ready for warm weather." 

Tourist season is starting to pick up, and while local visitors will postpone a visit when it rains, wine travelers may not have that luxury.     

"A lot of these people booked this trip in advance," said Zach Chamberlin, Hospitality Director at Ram's Gate. "The may have saved for a long time, and been planning on  it, so they're coming."   

A newly arrived group from Chicago marveled at their turn of luck, weather-wise. 

"We said we're coming to sunny California and here we are in rain," joked Jeff Knezovich, who said his flight from O'Hare to SFO was delayed almost three hours by wind and rain the Bay Area. 

Knezovich and his companions were embarking on a four-day winery excursion, rain or shine.  
"We're in these beautiful surroundings, it's not going to hurt us, we just won't get out in to the vineyards, but it all drinks the same!"

But while guests enjoy past vintages, there is always a new crop, and new challenges. 

The growing season got a late start because of lingering winter weather, then April heat provided a jump-start, and now rain puts everything on pause again. 

But at least it's cold enough that mold isn't a problem, and early enough that only a few varietals are in that delicate flowering stage. 

"Unless we can invent large umbrellas to put over vineyards, there's nothing we can do," smiled winemaker Nielsen, "but this is agriculture and what makes wine exciting."

It will be a few weeks before vintners know if the severe weather caused what they call "shatter," when grape clusters don't develop completely and the resulting fruit is diminished.