One of the defining features of Napa Valley vineyards in winter is missing this year.
In a normal January, the valley would be awash with yellow mustard, adding a festive touch to a landscape otherwise dominated by rows of scraggly dormant vines.
Not this January. Not in a drought year.
Because only token amounts of rain have fallen, the valley landscape is missing its traditional winter carpet of yellow. When tourists pull off Highway 29 with their cameras, there is nothing brilliant yellow to shoot.
January’s lack of mustard has thwarted Steve Gordon, a Napa artist who has a commission to paint a scenic portrait of a home in the Stags Leap area. The owner has specified a painting with blooming mustard in the foreground.
Before he picks up paints and brush, Gordon first needs to take a photo of this wine country tableaux to make sure he gets the details right.
“I might be waiting 12 months,” said Gordon, who has about given up on any mustard showing up this year.
Vineyards don’t look the same in January without the expected mustard, Gordon said. “They have a plainness that makes me uncomfortable,” he said.
Greg Clark, Napa County’s agricultural commissioner, said mustard is a cover crop that is both planted and springs up naturally in winter.
Some vineyardists plant mustard to control erosion. Others use mustard to curb insects or add nutrients to the soil, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
“It’s aesthetically beautiful, but also serves a biological purpose,” Putnam said.
This year, however, many growers have discouraged the growth of mustard, she said.
In a normal year, there is abundant rain for both mustard and vines, Clark said.
But in a dry year such as this one, vineyard owners are likely happy not to have mustard competing with vines for water, Clark said. “There isn’t enough to share,” he said.
Gordon has painted a variety of mustard landscapes over the years. Some paintings captured a sea of yellow blossoms dancing in sunshine. In others, the flowers cower under stormy skies.
This year, there may be no mustard paintings at all.