LOST HILLS, Calif. — A warning sign on two-lane Twisselman Road, which stretches along acres and acres of farmland, drips with irony: “Subject to flooding.”
Not this year.
Here on the western side of Kern County, in the heart of the nation’s largest agricultural hub, not enough water is the problem.
And that’s why Sohan Samran is forced to thwart the growth of his grapevines by pruning them more than usual so they won’t siphon more water than he has available. He sells his grapes to big wineries, such as Gallo and the Wine Group, the world’s third-largest wine producer, with brands that include Concannon and Cupcake.
Samran has already taken almost 160 acres of wine grapes out of production and replaced them with less-thirsty pistachio trees.
California has been the largest wine market in the world since 2010. It supplies 90 percent of all U.S. wine and is the world’s fourth-leading wine producer, after France, Italy and Spain. With more than $22 billion in sales in 2012, California wines make up more than half of U.S. wine sales and 90 percent of exported American wine, according to the Wine Institute in San Francisco.
“We have lots of inventory right now from the last two years,” said Gladys Horiuchi with the Wine Institute. “Nobody is worried about shortage or anything right now.”
The Wine Institute just released a sustainable-winegrowing book that profiles vintners and growers, such as Peter and Rebecca Work.
Their Ampelos Cellars, a small winery in Lompoc and nearby Buellton (the same Santa Barbara County region made famous in the popular 2004 movie “Sideways”), is one of the first vineyards in the country to be certified sustainable, organic and biodynamic.
The 46,000 vines of pinot noir, syrah and viognier grapes are flourishing on the rolling Santa Rita Hills.
Peter Work, a Danish national and Princeton graduate who went from the world of finance to the hands-on life of a vintner, spoke with unabashed pride as he gave a tour of his “holistic” operation and explained that winemaking is “a combination of art and science.”
And the drought?
“We are fine,” he said. “Our water sources are fairly good … We don’t do flood irrigation.”
They rely on two wells pumping from the water table, 165 feet belowground.
The vineyard is 100 percent solar-powered. They keep 40 chickens to control insects naturally (only organic pesticides are used). They feed the birds scraps from the kitchen and use the droppings to help fertilize the crops (no artificial fertilizer). The compost pile contains manure from two horses and winemaking byproducts, from grape stems to skins and seeds.
As more viticulturists are doing, the Works have adopted the biodynamic philosophy of a self-sustaining farm sensitive to the natural dynamics of its location, from soil structure and weather patterns to water needs and lunar cycles. A biodynamic calendar, based on the position of the moon in relation to constellations, flags them to “fruit days” as the best days to taste wine.
Between the vines in winter, sweet peas and fava beans are planted, which produces food and naturally nourishes the earth. Every 10th row is left unmowed to allow ladybugs and spiders — good insects that eat crop-damaging aphids — to thrive.
Some of the newer plantings at Ampelos, which makes wine for actor Kurt Russell, are strategically close to one another to use less land and less water — seven feet instead of nine between rows and three feet instead of four between vines.
“If you pay careful attention to your farming, there are ways to save water,” Peter Work said. “It looks like yields are going to be good again this year.”