Spring, and the residuals of winter seemed locked in a bitter feud at Hal Liske’s El Sol Winery in the Livermore Valley — a chilly flash of rain poured down from black skies as Liske looked over new spurts of green leaves shooting from his grapevines.
The emergence of the tiny leaves is celebrated as “bud break” around the wine region. It’s the beginning of what will become the vine’s leaves and grapes — and eventually wine.
But Liske wasn’t ready to launch a welcoming party. With rain gushing down, he was worried about his plants.
“Now these guys at this stage are probably at their most fragile,” Liske said taking shelter beneath a blue and white striped umbrella. “A good hail storm can knock them off.”
After years of drought, Liske welcomed the winter of steady rain. Just maybe not quite so much rain. During one severe winter storm, a torrent of water wound through his fields and down the driveway, so deep Liske was afraid to cross it to fetch his mail.
“Nobody would’ve ever ordered this much rain,” Liske joked, noting that he’s spent plenty of time this winter in the rubber boots leftover from when he was a firefighter. “We got a lot of practice about being wet this year."
But with the tiny buds appearing on his vines, Liske worried about the weather that lay ahead. Forecasts of heavy storms in the coming days and the potential for hail sent a chill through Liske’s winemaker spine.
“These plants are kind of like all my kids,” he said, shuffling his rubber boots through the vineyard’s thick layers of sticky mud.
To emphasize the threat, Liske flicked a small new growth of leaves on a vine that he intended to prune. The light grazing sent the bud flying.
“Bup, it’s gone,” Liske narrated. “And that spot will not regrow.”
In other Livermore vineyards, the work of spring was in full force. At Las Positas Vineyards, crews of laborers were bending grapevines and tying them to wires, which would shape their growth. Along the vines, more of the small leaves jutted out as the promise of things to come.
Las Positas winemaker Brent Amos said despite the challenges of such a wet winter, the vineyards were in good shape, thanks to an abundant supply of water.
“All the soils are nice and saturated,” Amos said, “definitely cut down on any irrigation we have to do.”
Amos predicted a good year for wine making, with so much water flushing out the soils and getting them in shape for the spring growth. But like most farmers, he was reluctant to sound the all-clear to his season.
“We have a lot of weather between now and harvest,” Amos said, “so we’ll see.”
Liske savored a brief break in the rain, as the sun threatened to make a brief appearance between a couple of heavy, dark clouds. He said the winter had been a continual effort of pumping water and cleaning up. As happy as he was to see an abundance of rain, he was just as overjoyed to see it finally exit.
Minutes later, the sun tucked back beneath the clouds, and the sky opened up once again, sending a solid wall of rain onto Liske and his vineyard.
“You take what you get,” he smiled. “Just like life.”
This weekend the Livermore Valley Wine Growers will hold an event to celebrate Barrels Bottles and Brews.