Here at Charles Vineyard (our estate) we expect budbreak to happen in the next few weeks. This means that, unless the rain continues into spring, we'll soon be on frost watch as well.
Budbreak is always an exciting time. It's the official start to another growing season, when the little leaves begin to emerge from the vines. It means we get to start really watching weather and growing conditions, and accumulating all that data that will make 2011 a good year or bad year (mostly good and great in Cali, fortunately for us).
Even to the wine consumer who knows nothing about growing grapes, the nearing of frost season is easy to predict: as you drive through wine country in February and early March, look for sprinklers running in the middle of the day. This is the resident grape grower testing out his frost protection system, looking for leaks or other issues, and then getting it fixed before the season starts. Most get around to this within the month before budbreak.
Frost alarms are also tested during this time: if your alarm doesn't go off when the temperature dips in the wee hours, then you're in trouble!
Some growers have automated systems, which turn on automatically. They cost big bucks, but save you some sanity. Here at Charles Vineyard we're old-school: we turn on as late as we can, as judged by Mr. Bill Charles. Then we turn off as early as possible. The vast majority of our ponds here simply catch winter rain, so the more you use on frost protection = the less you have for irrigation during the summer.
So, wish us luck with yet another growing season. While you're at it, wish my father, Bill, many good nights of sleep, because he's the one who has to get up when the alarm goes off!