Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | April 22, 2011

Frost Season: Off The Grid In Carneros

Thomson Vineyards Frost Damage Potential

We call it “Off The Grid” at Thomson Vineyards. In the corporate world they call it “Out Of Pocket” and The Old Farmers call it “Fightin’ Alligators” or “Puttin’ Out Fires”. Whatever you call it – it’s where I’ve been since February.

Since I’ve been Off The Grid, the entire 30 acre vineyard was cane pruned by The Farmer and his guy, plus two more acres of Merlot. My Uncle and his guy did 50 acres. Four guys, two electric pruners, two electric tyers – just about 90 acres.

Throughout those 90 acres we micro managed several Chardonnay blocks, pendelbogen pruning just the northern half of the rows to balance canopy vigor where the water table is more evident in the topography. We’ve mowed twice. Knocked twin buds off of a couple blocks to manage crop volume early on and reduce labor later in the season. It’s now exhibiting uniform shoot growth between 1-3 inches. The vineyard was also weeded and the Shurfarms Cold Air Drain run 4 days out of 7 during the freezing temperatures the second week of April.

We bought the nearly brand new Shurfarms Cold Air Drain in March from Justin Miller of Garden Creek Vineyards who manages about 100 acres in Alexander Valley and a high end label of his own – or two, if you count the verjus business he’s diversified himself into. After twisting The Farmer’s arm we loaded up cold air drain on the flat bed and took it home, rather than the Bear Valley Wind Machine which was going to cost $1k just to move from Big Ranch Road to Los Carneros Avenue in Napa! The circa 1986 machine had a hefty $4-5k price tag and came with a propane engine that would have needed a fair amount of ongoing upkeep. Given the facts, I made the executive decision to no longer rely  “On a wing and a prayer” frost protection and made a deal with Justin – farmer to farmer.

The new technology was worth every penny. On April 12 reported 44, but temperatures dipped well below freezing. The Farmer – being the great man he is, anticipated it beforehand and arrived at 2 a.m. to turn his new toy on in the Carneros Chardonnay blocks 5 and 6. He saved everything but one vine in row 102. How did he do it? Old Farmer wisdom. Because there is no Frost Alert App for Android on the market yet. Hey Vintank, I think I may have discovered a hole in the market.

Kickin' the tires & hooking the Shurfarms Cold Air Drain up to PTO is a two man job.

The new frost protection is PTO driven and takes just a gallon of Ag Diesel to run it per hour. FYI John Tuteur the county tax assessor apparently cares deeply about sustainability, so much so he’s taken a real interest into just how long the average farmer is keeping equipment around nowadays. He’s requested that I, and every other farmer, catalogue every single piece of farm equipment we own and turn it in to his office for assessment. Correction. He wanted me to. It was due April 1. He shouldn’t consider himself special. I didn’t submit my federal or state taxes to the IRS until 11:45 p.m. April 18. And I haven’t given in to Tuteur’s request because Thomson Vineyards has 57 pieces of equipment on its inventory list. All equipment is categorized into “Non-op” “Semi-op” aka Needs Service/Repair or “Operational”

There are two pieces of equipment in the “Operational” category. Both are pieces of equipment I bought. But, The Farmer and every other true farmer in The Valley will tell you, “you may only need it once in awhile, but when you need it, you need it and if you don’t have it…”

I'll Show You Easy

In all fairness to The Farmer, the tractors are fairly operational and he’s working on the spray rig this week. One of two tractors is nearly up to my satisfaction level with a new battery and push button start that rivals the Staples “Easy” button. Because I drove to Kragen, came back to The Ranch, and put a new battery in it. See a pattern…

So while I may have been Off The Grid for the better part of Q1… farming still goes on. And if you thought The Farmer was farming up a storm last growing season, just wait for this one. We pendelbogen pruned and tyed just the north half of the rows! Row, by row. Of at least three blocks. Only a true viticulturist or meticulous winemaker can appreciate a grower who farms row by row and understand the labor intensiveness behind that kind of process.

Prices went up this year too as a result of the high end hand farming going on and the deep deep discounts we’ve afforded to wineries in the past three years. In exchange for our “generosity” Thomson Vineyards has ended up in the red and the wineries somehow in the black, hence our semi operational tractors and their sold out finished wine.

So, those who won’t pony up for hand farmed fruit or are more trouble than they’re worth are out. And I’m picking and choosing who we’re selling to. Call me up. I’m back On The Grid and taking offers. You can see me ‘n The Farmer at the following events and he’ll tell you about puttin’ out fires, I’ll tell you about the field blend of proprietary clonal selection Chardonnay that I’ve got for sale:

April 27 Vineyard Soil Nutrition Seminar – Mineralogy and wine quality, nutrient cycling in vineyards, leaf, petiole & soil sampling

April 28 10th Annual Wine Industry Conference: Turning point those who are shaping the future of wine

April 28 Building a Green Tech Industry in the Silicon Valley – Is it Real or Hype?

May 4 Cheers to Taste! @ Mondavi Winery

May 13 & May 26 Marketing For California Wineries & Growers

May 26 2nd Annual #Chardonnay Day – grab a bottle of White Cottage Ranch Thomson Vineyard Chardonnay and have yourself a party, we’ll be celebrating those wineries making Chardonnay from The Farmer’s fruit in 2011!


  1. Good information which all of us growers can learn and share from your experiences.

    Guess the wineries are going to have to invest in the time, effort and great expense to grow their own fruit; otherwise, pay for great fruit.

    As it would be five years down the road before they would realize their first harvest (according to the County Tax Assessor’s Office of their estimation of when they start taxing your new vineyard property for what they consider your first harvest), they are going to have to start realizing, we as growers, have what they want. Grapes of the highest quality.

    All that takes hand labor, intensive hand labor.

    After all, the wineries are the ones making a huge profit. Certainly not the growers with all the hard work, labor, tremendous expenses and effort going into bringing in a high-end quality grape harvest.

    • Roberta – thanks for your comment and reading.

      Many wineries in Carneros are selling off fruit they began to grow and then realized they didn’t have a place for in their program. So not only are we competing in the market among other growers, now we’re competing with those who really should be the buyers!

      The lesson to be learned by small to mid sized wineries (a couple hundred to a few thousand cases) is that you can get hand hand farmed quality fruit picked on the day you want it AND pay for it OR you can wait for big operations like Robledo and Cuvaison to pick 100T and put your 4T off to the side and call you when it’s ready. When developing a wine program, building a business, and implementing a strategy in this new world economy, I know which “grower” I’d choose…and I’d be sure to thank them!

      I’ll be speaking May 13, 8:30 a.m. in Napa at the Meritage at a free seminar called Marketing for California Wineries & Growers, sponsored by CAWG and The Wine Institute (you do not need to be a member to attend). I hope you can be there Roberta, more growers need to come together to share information, tell each other when they are going to turn on their frost protection, and talk up the wineries out there making good wine from our above average fruit!

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