California wine going dry

By Posted on Jul 30 2014 | By

Virginia and Golden State vineyards share mutual problem: water

As one travels through California this summer, lush vineyards are ubiquitous. But if you glance beyond the undulating rows of manicured-like vines, it’s scorched hills that dominate the views.

Paso Robles countryside

Paso Robles countryside

Drought has struck—and struck hard—in the state that produces 90 percent of all wine made in the U.S. And the driest part of its growing season lies ahead.

This writer recently spent ten days on a 1,300 mile road trip visiting with numerous winery owners and staff. The picture that emerged is unsettling and causing serious concern in every wine growing region in the state, from Temecula in the south to the Anderson Valley in the north.

Conversely, Virginia’s landscape appears almost jungle-like as spring and summer rains have vineyards producing heavy vine canopy that will demand regular pruning and spraying to turn the BB size grapes into plump, juicy bottles of wine.

In May, John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly said, “We had a lot of rain early here this year and bud break was so late our vines have barely been growing for six weeks now. Temperatures have been cool and with the late bud break we don’t have near the canopy growing we normally would.

“But with 15 years of growing here I won’t panic until September,” he said chuckling.

Nonetheless, excess water in the form of either rain or humidity is a problem California wineries don’t have to deal with. In fact, the daily summer mantra of the Virginia weatherman, “with a chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon” is seldom heard in California.

One marker for meeting the moisture challenge is the scope of spraying programs employed in the Old Dominion compared to California. Typically out West, vineyards are sprayed two to three times a season. In Virginia, 12 to 14 applications are normal and can go over 20 during a wet and humid growing season; protecting vines from fungi and mildews is paramount.

Another rainy day in Virginia

Another rainy day in Virginia

In 2011, a dry summer foretold of a stellar harvest only to have it drowned out by heavy September rains and a cool October. One nine day period in September saw 12 inches of rain fall in the Charlottesville area resulting in waterlogged grapes.

To the north, the U.S. department of Agriculture has declared the Finger Lakes wine region a disaster area after wave after wave of “polar vortexs” damaged up to 100 percent of some vineyards.

Many grape farmers will need to replant vineyards damaged by the long deep freeze that saw sustained temperatures hover between -7 to -18 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heart of winemaking is farming. Lord Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in the late 1700s said, “There are three easy ways of losing money; racing is the quickest, women the most pleasant and farming the most certain.”

And it is most certain that if significant rains do not fall in California in 2015, dry wine will have an entirely new meaning for American wine lovers.

The drought
California is historically a dry state so droughts are not a new experience. Water is supplied through a complex infrastructure developed over decades. Winter rains and mountain snows fill reservoirs and irrigation ditches that drive agricultural production in normal years. But for the last seven years normal has not been normal.

Today, the entire state is officially in drought, the worst since the mid-1850s. B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California at Berkeley, believes the state may be headed for a megadrought of 200 years or more. “During the medieval period there was over a century of drought in the Southwest and California. The past repeats itself.”

Indeed, a millennium ago native tribes waited for winter rains that never arrived. The following years the wait continued until the marshes of the San Francisco Bay turned from cattails to salt grass, resulting in the loss of rich fishing grounds. The Indians packed up and left the region in search of water. Might this be the fate of the state’s winemakers?

Most scientists are reserving judgment but agree the past century has been exceptionally moist and warm in California and an extended drought could be measured in decades, if not centuries.

Bright-eyed optimists are convinced that 2015 will see the return of an El Niño and heavy rains. In fact, warm water is being observed in the depths of the Pacific Ocean now, a precursor of a rainy season. If is rises to the surface in the next several months, it could trigger an intense El Niño effect. Keep your Farmers’ Almanac handy.

With this preamble on the California water issue, slide into the back seat of the rental car as this writer and his wife head out on a wine odyssey.

Santa Ynez
Located thirty minutes north of Santa Barbara, this area is home to the Neverland Ranch, the late Michael Jackson’s colorful 3,000 acre property. But there be will no swing by to gander at the edifice. The task at hand is wine.

At Firestone Vineyards the knowledgeable guide explains the challenge of growing grapes in a desert-like environment.

“We recently planted a block of 16,000 new vines to replace ones destroyed by root rot. At $20 per vine and four years before maturity with an additional few years more before a sufficient quantity can be harvested, a good bottle of wine is expensive to produce.” “We have four different reservoirs plus two wells, enough water for about a year. We have pruned from typical four shoots down to two, focusing on quality not quantity.The drought will likely dictate an early harvest.”

At Bridlewood Estate Winery, an employee said, “In the past, we’ve had a 10 year drought cycle and old timers don’t get nervous. But with three straight years of drought everybody is now getting nervous.” The winery has two years supply of water sourced from ground wells that produce 40,000 cases of wine annually.

Two terms you hear a lot of are “dry farming” and “drip irrigation”.The former involves no watering of the vines. This is “tough love” grape farming and forces the vines to seek cooler moist soil at depths of 15 to 30 feet. It is not employed without some risk and in extreme conditions some water would likely need to be applied. The latter produces a slow drip of water through polytubing suspended about a foot above the vine’s base and is used sparingly.

Bridlewood employs drip irrigation. The winery already sources some of its grapes from outside of California, mostly from Oregon and Washington. Federal law permits up to 25 percent of wine from another state to be bottled and still labeled with the receiving state’s name. If the drought worsens, it’s a strategy an increasing number of wineries could use.

Foxen Winery is located in the rural area of Santa Ynez near the eponymous Fess Parker Winery. The landscape is palpably dry with broad vistas of rolling brown hills and fields of straw colored grasses. Extended hikes in the region would demand a day pack full of bottled water.

“Next year we will be hugely affected by the drought,” explains the tasting room host. “Wine prices could get ridiculous.” The winery does both dry and drip irrigation. “In our drip vineyards our winemaker is seeing so much fruit he is having to drop 50 per cent of it”, a strategy designed to conserve vine energy and produce deeply flavored wines. “We’ve also shorten the cordons” (the branches extending from the trunk that will produce the fruit).

The technique draws down energy demands of the vine. “Next year forecasters are predicting an El Niño that will turn everything around. We are staying as positive as we can” she said.

Before leaving Santa Ynez, a stop at the Roblar Winery elicits a telling comment from our host, “Lake Cuchuma is ridiculously dry. We’ve only had about five or six days of rain in the last year. The ocean fog does provide some moisture.” The nearby 3,100 surface acre lake is at thirty-nine percent of its capacity.

Paso Robles
Moving north and entering the county of San Luis Obispo—home to some 300 wineries—temperatures rise to the upper eighties with low humidity. It’s apparent the drought has applied brute force to the region.

An extended conversation with a long time grape grower and winemaker was as revealing as it was heartbreaking. “The big question I have this season is, ‘will my well run dry,’” said Jim Jacobsen, who along with his wife Mary Beth, have been farming fruit and grapes for over 40 years, the last 17 at his winery Doce Robles.

Jim Jacobsen Doce Robles Winery & Vineyard

Jim Jacobsen
Doce Robles Winery & Vineyard

“My well is not dry yet but I’m hearing my neighbor’s went dry recently.”  Jacobsen farms mostly red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Barbera, Malbec and Petit Syrah. White wines don’t thrive well in the hot countryside but his Viognier was tasty.

“In 17 years, I’ve only flushed my well filters four or five times. I have really clear water. But at the end of last season, I was flushing daily because of dirt starting to come up from the bottom. I’m just hoping we make it another year,” said Jacobsen.

It’s the same story heard from wine farmers throughout the region. Vine growers on the east side of town are hurting a bit more than those on the west side nearer to the ocean, but “the long term prognosis is not good for them either.” Jacobsen’s well is 300 feet deep and he opines that some of the other wineries have deeper and larger wells to help survive the summer.

He currently is drip irrigating his 36 acres of vines over an 11 day cycle. “I can survive one year without a crop. I can’t survive four,” referring to the length of time it takes for a new vineyard to start producing some fruit to make wine. “I have never been in a situation when I didn’t have rain to grow fruit.”

Jacobson thinks the problem isn’t ultimately the lack of rain but the failure of the state to conserve its precious water sources. “If we get a wet winter, nobody worries about it. We need to build more dams,” he states.

As the visit draws to a close, his wife Mary Beth echoes the soon-to-be commonly heard refrain, “They are predicting an El Niño next year.”

As one proceeds up Highway 101, with Paso Robles fading in the rearview mirror, the landscape turns as flat as the Bonneville Salt Flats. But instead of a barren white landscape, miles of irrigated fruits and vegetables are on display. The Central Valley stretches some 450 miles long but it’s the southern half that will feel the first impact of the drought.

It is estimated the state’s agricultural economy will lose $1.7 billion this year, leaving some 14,500 farm workers without jobs all because farmers will receive one-third less irrigation water. Not only are wine drinkers nationwide going to be feel the drought’s impact, so will anyone who enjoys fruits, vegetables and nuts. Everyone will likely have to dig deeper in their wallets to enjoy this region’s normally bountiful agricultural products.

Napa and Sonoma
Moving still further north, one enters the Valhalla of wine growing in the U.S., Napa and Sonoma County. Legendary wineries abound here as do enormous amounts of money and prestige. An acre of prime Napa vineyard can exceed $300,000. Given what is at stake if the motherland were to go dry, wineries here monitor water supplies and vineyard stresses closely to assure the vines remain viable.

Ground water can be accurately measured and a vine leaf can be placed in a pressure chamber to extract stem water and determine the specific level of stress the plant is encountering. Seemingly no technical tool available is left unused to coddle the vines. At Martin Ray Winery in Sonoma, Greg Ray (no relation), is the wine club and e-commerce manager.

“The drought has not affected us too drastically. We’ll start seeing more prominent effects as get we further into the summer,” he said. The majority of the winery’s grapes are dry farmed and rely on drip irrigation only when plant stress rises. “Droughts are fantastic for the vines. They love it.” It’s true. The harder a vine struggles the higher the quality of fruit that is forthcoming. But if the stress becomes cataclysmic an entire vineyard can go down.

After a fascinating two hour tour of Jack London’s early 1900s Beauty Ranch in southern Sonoma, a visit to nearby Benzinger Family Winery was in order. The hospitality host was again knowledgeable and friendly, an almost universal experience encountered at every winery.

Lake Sonoma dam

Lake Sonoma dam

“There is voluntary rationing of water throughout the state. Our last two vintages have been great so the warehouse is well stocked to meet a shortfall, if it occurs this year. We have been dealing with the water issue for about seven years,” he explains. An early harvest is predicted because of early bud break and the vineyard is two weeks ahead of where it was last year.

The majority of water is currently retained in the soils “so we’ll let the vines go through that before adding additional water. We also do water reclamation. All the water used at the winery, such as rinsing barrels and on the crushpad, goes into a “gray” water system and from there into man-made wetlands we’ve created. We save a million gallons of water annually using these processes. We do our best to conserve, he said.”

Chateau Montelena in Napa earned its bona fides in 1976 when its 1973 Chardonnay beat the best of white French wines in the historical competition dubbed “Judgment of Paris”. Our host was Nick Rugen, a winery chef and tasting room employee.

“With our estate reds and Zinfandel we practice ‘deficient irrigation’ watering only when we have to. In January, we came close to having to do so but received rains in February and March that really saved us. Our lake was bone dry and we were expecting see a die off of some of the vines. We are now back to about 70 percent where we need to be. So it hit the reset button on the drought. In the middle of June, it will start to heat up and we typically won’t see rain again until the end of October.”

Rugen recalls back in 2008, dry weather caused brush fires further north in the state and the resulting wine was tainted by smoke that covered the vineyards. “They claimed it was from using toasted wine barrels,” he said smiling. The story points up another threat from arid conditions.

In extreme situations the winery would drop all the fruit to save the vines. With the dry farmed blocks—no polytube lines installed—truck water would be brought in to irrigate. He also emphasized if die off began they would pump all the water out their lake to save the plants. Once again, the frequently heard refrain closed out the informative visit, “Let’s hope for an El Niño next winter.”

Two other visits to highly regarded Napa wineries reinforced many of the lamentations previously heard. Mumm Napa and Frog’s Leap wineries produce acclaimed wines and are within a short distance of each other. But Mumm grows no fruit on its property and has no wells because the climate in Napa is too warm for its lineup of sparkling wines. “Grapes for our wines wouldn’t be happy in this environment. We grow our fruit a little closer to the Bay Area,” states the host.

At Frog’s Leap, a young native of Michigan, Megan Anderson, poured wine and provided knowledgeable commentary on the winery and the drought. “Our two hundred and fifty acres are dry farmed. No irrigation, no pesticides, no fertilizers. We believe in nature taking care of nature,” explains Anderson. “Our concern rises when temperatures are above 90 degrees. But the roots of our vines go 20 to 30 feet deep where the soil has more moisture and is cooler. We have no ground wells on the property.”

When really hot weather occurs, water is sprinkled on the leaves to protect the grapes and foliage from sunburn. The root stock comes from Missouri and Texas and has been acclimated to hot weather since birth. “Our grapes are use to being hot and thirsty.”

It also helps that the winery is near the Napa River. And while it is located where the river is more “Goose Creek” than “Potomac” is does provide for a higher ground water table than other locations in the valley.

When pressed about a doomsday scenario, Anderson said, “We’ve never had drought and climate change like this before. We have no idea what will happen. Yes, we would have to do something but we still would not want to irrigate,” she said.

The visit crystallized the passion and knowledge brought to bear in producing fine wine. But it also underscored the subliminal fear and concern that accompanies the possible destruction of a life’s work.

Rounding out the Napa tour was a visit to the iconic Joseph Phelps Winery. An interesting footnote is that Phelps brought the Viognier grape to California from France back in the early 1980s thinking it could become the new chardonnay. But the state’s terroir was not conducive to expressing the best the grape had to offer. In 1991, Dennis Horton, owner of Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, planted the grape on Virginia soil. The rest is wine history as the berry fell in love with the Old Dominion—hey, Virginia is for lovers—and it became the state’s signature white varietal.

The host at Phelps said dry farming is employed but not exclusively. “”We make the right decision when we need to. We use drip during the bloom and flowering growing period and during veraison (when the fruit turns golden or purple in August). A major expansion of the winery’s hospitality rooms are in progress and for the next 10 months tastings are held on a patio and temporary buildings below the main facility.

But sitting on the patio and focusing on the nearby vines a quiet drip, drip, drip was observed as the vines received an H2O transfusion. It was 87 degrees without a breath of air under a cloudless sky. July and August awaits.

Anderson Valley
Swinging back onto Highway 101 and leaving the Napa Valley behind, the winemobile headed for the last of the regions to be explored, the Anderson Valley.

Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley

The level landscape slowly gave way to hill country and the feeling of dryness was tangible even from inside the air conditioned car. Brown and straw-colored hills with muted green trees predominate here. Leaving Highway 101 and heading west on a twisting two lane road, the stark beauty further reinforced the image of extreme dry country.

Our primary destination was Roederer Estate, owned by the French champagne producer Louis Roederer. Buzz Busse was the hospitably host, a quiet spoken and knowledge retiree with an air of professionalism. A former engineer perhaps?

“The late spring rains saved us but we are still way behind. For those who believe in climate change we are experiencing it. This is the first year we’ve had really bad conditions,” he said.

The winery has 612 acres under vine and produces 110,000 cases annually, predominately sparklers. “Traditionally we receive 40 inches of rain a year but 60 to 80 inches is not unusual. But in the last five years if we got 30 inches we are jumping for joy. It’s expected to be closer to 20 this year.” And some of that rain did not fall when needed.

“In the last couple of years we’ve had rains in early October which played havoc with the grape harvest. Most of the entrapped water in our ponds is needed for frost protection” so can’t be used for it for heavy irrigation. Only light sprinkle irrigation is used during hot weather to protect the vines and fruit from sunburn. The winery does have wells on the property and they haven’t gone dry yet.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed. We’re not sure what’s going to happen.” This year we did long pruning. Normally we prune to two shoots but we went to four. If we do get frost, it will affect the outer shoots so we build in a scenario that will provide for fresh, younger shoots that will produce fruit. But that also raises the cost of production to have to double prune such large acreage,” he said.

Busse’s fellow host opined that she has mixed feelings about several recently purchased wind fans used to augment water misting to protect from frost. “Which is the lesser of the two evils? Using the environmentally unfriendly propane-powered fans or the water? “We also need to save water for the valley people. The locals say ‘Well, you shouldn’t being doing the fruit protection. You are hurting people. You should be like other farmers and let the drought run it course and have a bad year.’ The vines don’t need water to survive. They need water to produce fruit,” she states.

The discussion points up an interesting dilemma. When a natural resource becomes scarce, who has more entitlement to dwindling supplies?

Leaving the winery in the early afternoon, the azure sky and still air sends the temperature to 97 degrees. The valley and its people have a long, hot summer ahead.

The Virginia wine industry has much to be thankful for, notwithstanding its often overly moist environment.

As the wine journey comes to a close, thoughts drift to car a rental return and boarding passes. But the predominate emotions are concern and melancholy. Nature is once again impacting humans and their productive lives.

May the California wine industry live long and prosper.


                                    Out of crisis opportunity?

If California wine production were to drop precipitously, would it create an opportunity for Virginia to become a major wine player?

In the short term, the limiting factor would be the amount of Virginia wine available for national distribution. The Old Dominion produces 511,000 cases annually. While it sounds substantial, it’s a mere drop in the wine glass of California’s production of 214 million cases.

But given the rising quality of Virginia wine, could the state attract investors to dramatically expand vineyard acreage if the Golden State’s wine bottle were to eventually run dry? The Nation’s annual vinous thirst—close to four billion bottles—is seemingly too great for investors not to jump in quickly to meet demand.

But think again.

Brian Roeder

Brian Roeder

Brian Roeder, owner of Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, said, “I don’t see a source of fruit coming out of Virginia to make something like that happen. Demand here is already outstripping supply.” Roeder thinks it is at least a decade-long problem that cannot be resolved quickly.

“I don’t see any conceivable way we could see the required dramatic investment. And on top of that, we still have our own problems with rain, with spraying, with bugs. We are going to see a whole series of environmental demands placed on us if California’s past experience is the rule.”

Roeder thinks it would be a formidable challenge for an investor to amass small vineyard parcels in Virginia and manage them for large scale wine production. “It would take a billionaire to do something like that,” he said.

What Roeder does think is feasible is the creation of wine factories that would aggregate finished wine and grapes from Europe, South America and the East Coast to produce a large-scale industry to meet demand from a multi-decade drought in California.

“We have the talent, the physical location and the access to European markets that California doesn’t have,” he said.

He also firmly believes the Commonwealth can become an agriculture-tourism wine destination. Virginia has it all with, “its beauty, its easy to reach location and the wealth of the region. We can become America’s Wine Country,” he said.


Published in the 2014 summer edition of the Piedmont Business Journal.

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena

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