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The Magic of Mustard in the Vineyards

Each winter, mustard blossoms in Sonoma County vineyards. Photo by Tom Moyer.

Every year, towards the end of winter, many Sonoma County vineyards come alive with a brilliant carpet of yellow, orange and gold beneath the bare grape trunks. The first time someone sees the landscape, it’s mesmerizing. Yet when they see it again and again, year after year, it still never loses its magic.

It’s mustard, growing wild or planted by thoughtful vineyard managers. More than just a feast for the eyes, it’s a feast for the vines, as it thrives just until bud break, when it is turned under to mulch and provide valuable nutrients and phosphorus to the emerging grape plants.

The practice holds deep roots in Wine Country. According to legend, a Franciscan missionary first spread the mustard seed while landscaping church properties throughout California. Planting was simple – these early world gardeners carried the mustard seeds in a sack slung over their backs, and each sack had a small hole in it, so as they walked, the seeds would scatter. 

To view the mustard, simply pick an area that’s deeply populated with wineries and vineyards, and look out your car window. In Northern Sonoma County particularly lavish displays flourish near Alexander Valley (start from Geyserville), on Guerneville Road along the Russian River (from Santa Rosa to Guerneville), in Dry Creek Valley from Healdsburg, and along Highway 101 heading to Geyserville. Another famous spot for mustard viewing is Highway 12 from Santa Rosa to Sonoma in the Sonoma Valley.

Hiking in the vineyards or adjoining nature parks, such as Sugarloaf Ridge Park, is also a great way to see mustard in bloom. Or, download information about free self-guided vineyard walks.

Mustard also thrives wild in meadows, laying a luxurious blanket under live oaks. It’s beneficial on sloped grades, since the plants hold soil in place during winter rains to protect again erosion. Sometimes, it seems to just pop up overnight, too, in a place that long was barren. That’s because mustard seeds have been known to persist in soils for upwards of 20 years, and may have gone dormant but will be revived by specific weather conditions or tractor discing.

For folks wanting to impress their friends with mustard knowledge, here are some details about the plants that will have everyone marveling over the science (and big words) of it all:

  • Mustard growth helps suppress nematode population (microscopic worms that can damage vines), because mustard contains high levels of biofumigants
  • Some vineyards have created their own varieties that are specifically bred to have high levels of Glucosinolate compounds, or are “extra spicy,” to further deter nematodes
  • Essentially, the worms don’t like the glucosinolates in the mustard, which give the plant its pungent odor and sharp taste
  • Naturally reducing harmful nematodes with mustard spares the vineyards from dangerous chemical eradicators and pesticides