Which Weather is the New Normal?

Long used to depending on the weather, grape growers in California are largely scratching their heads these days, as long-standing patterns have disappeared in favour of a climate that seems to range from volatile to dangerous.

The 2017-2018 growing season will be marked forever by the disastrous and deadly fires that swept through the unseasonably dry Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, only to be followed by devastating mudslides in January when a rapidly delivered four inches (100 mm) of rain destroyed a swathe of the already-fire-scarred community of Montecito, Santa Barbara, claiming 21 lives.

We Californians collectively held our breath for weeks, wondering if this was merely the first of many slides to affect the numerous scorched hillsides now vulnerable throughout the state. But no more rain was forthcoming. In fact, during what was supposed to be the peak of California’s rainy season, less than an inch of rain fell in northern California. The drought relief supplied by last year’s unusually wet winter seemed to have been extremely short-lived.

And yet, as March progressed, in an inversion of the typical season, more and more rain began to fall, culminating on 6 April when the phenomenon known as an ‘atmospheric river’ dumped more than eight inches of rain within the span of 30 hours on some parts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, thoroughly soaking much of northern California wine country. Creeks and rivers quickly overflowed their banks, making roads impassable in some places, and in others, washing them away entirely.

‘We’re no longer getting rainfall in the normal months’, says winemaker and viticulture consultant Steve Matthiasson. ‘[Our rainfall] is supposed to be a bell curve centred over January and February, but now it’s double humped. For the last eight years, we’ve had fall rains and spring rains, and this strange dry spell in the middle of winter.’

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