The earliest anyone can remember seeing bud break in Long Island vineyards was mid-April in 2010 — a vintage that ended up being one of the longest and warmest on record. Bud break in 2010 was about two weeks earlier than average.

But, after a mild winter and with temperatures currently in the upper-50s and 60s this week — Long Island vineyards coudl see bud break even earlier in 2012.

“The potential for an early budbreak this year appears higher than normal. If the weather continues to trend the way it has over the winter season it is increasingly likely that an early budbreak will occur,” said David Page of Shinn Estate Vineyards, where bud break occurred on April 17 in 2010.

A mild winter and this current string of warm weather doesn’t necessarily mean early bud break, however.

According to Alice Wise Sr. Resource Educator for the viticulture program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County bud break is “related to a certain number of days with the average temperatures greater than 50 degrees Farenheit. But there is no magic formula to predict when it will occur. There are likely other physiological processes at play as well. An early budbreak is a possibility but it is difficult to predict. Depends on the weather over the next month.”

Channing Daughters Winery partner and CEO — and soil scientist — Larry Perrine echoes that wait-and-see approach. “Are we at risk for an earlier budbreak in 2012?  Only the next 3 weeks or so will tell,” said in an email yesterday, adding “However, with sustained warmer than average temperatures, as we are having, budbreak can be up to two weeks earlier than average.”

In and of itself, early bud break isn’t a problem. In fact, some of the earliest bud breaks have occurred in years like 2007 and 2010, considered among the region’s best. An early start offers the potential for a long, even ripening process. It also mitigates the impact less-than-optimal growing conditions later in the season can have on the overall vintage.

That’s the bright side of early bud break. The risk is hard frost in the spring — after bud break — which could signifcantly damage buds and just-forming leaves — greatly reducing crop size. Entire blocks or even vineyards could be lost.

For now, Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, is focusing on the positive possibilities, saying “The beauty of eastern Long Island is that we rarely experience frost problems. That’s one of the big reasons we’re so successful growing wine grapes here – our spring temperatures usually prevent that from happening.”

A lot can happen after bud break, but Olsen-Harbich also reminds us that it’s still very early and a lot can happen between now and when buds open. “I’ve also seen things warm up early only to be set back with weeks of cold April weather. One thing I do know is that there no two years are the same on the North Fork. That’s what makes it so challenging, interesting and exciting to grow grapes here. As for this year?  We’ll see!”