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Raise a glass: Drought not disrupting California wine (yet)

Some growers already feeling impact of water shortage; experts worry about third and fourth years

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.

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For farmers in Central California who rely on water from the state reservoirs, this third consecutive year of extreme drought — which has cut state water supplies to zero for some farmers — threatens their livelihoods.

“Zero means zero,” said Samran, a Punjabi immigrant who graduated from the University of California at Davis and formed Bapu Farming Co. — which takes its name from the Punjabi word for “father” or “grandfather” — on 2,900 acres spreading over four counties. “I have just a little bit to keep things alive. It’s really bad this year.”

He grows 240 acres of wine grapes, ruby red zinfandel but has no working wells that can pull up groundwater.

Despite his use of drip irrigation, a water-saving system that targets the roots of the crops and reduces evaporation, the crops are faltering. Vines are dormant in winter and don’t usually need watering because they get rain, but many vintners who have water have been forced to use it to keep the vines alive.

“They need water. They’re thirsty,” he said, perusing his fields of thirsty vines and parched almond trees. “It’s like a loved one in the hospital. You know they’re going to die. You look away.”

If this severe drought continues through next year, Samran said, “I might as well pack up and leave. It can become an amusement park.”

Outlook ‘OK’ this year

A worker aerates the ground around the vines at Russell Family Vineyard, near Paso Robles, Calif.
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Despite the struggle of many grape farmers, such as Samran, the California wine industry as a whole is faring well after two record years of production, which  will keep wine supplies flowing for a while.

But the outlook varies across the state. Mendocino County wineries and growers throughout the Central Valley are feeling the pinch, while Napa and Santa Barbara counties are doing fine. “Most think they’ll make it through 2014 OK,” said Ron Lopp, communications manager at the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Sacramento.

The effect may be felt next year, when the buds of the vine produce shoots and bunches. The stress of a drought can affect the quality of the fruit. “We’re talking about next year’s crop,” said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno. “If we have a light crop of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in 2014, you won’t feel that until 2015.”

Most growers rely on surface irrigation provided by the state. “That means they either have to rely on deep wells if they have an existing pumping plant or they’re looking to develop a new well,” DiBuduo said. But much of the groundwater on the west side of the Central Valley has high salt content, which can kill the vines.

Part of the reason for the record wine grape harvest in the last two years is that more and more acreage is going to the vines. Wine consumption has been increasing every year for 19 consecutive years, and grape wine acreage has gone from 535,000 acres to 546,000 acres in two years.

In Paso Robles, an estimated 4,000 acres of new vines were planted from August 2011 to August 2013. San Luis Obispo County supervisors last summer put a moratorium on new vineyards and other developments.

“A number of large areas of land have been very recently converted from dry land farming or grazing to vineyards,” the county resolution said. “This drought has likely exacerbated the effects of the recent increase in water intensive agricultural … and contributes to the emergency situation facing homeowners whose wells have very recently gone dry or are about to go dry.”

Big industry

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.”

Workers prune vines at Russell Family Vineyard.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Bottom line: Consumers will still be able to find their favorite wines for about the same prices — at least this year.

“Vineyards can go through several years of drought,” Horiuchi said. “But usually the third and fourth year, yield will be the issue.”

There’s also concern that the dry and warm conditions this winter may trigger an early start to the growing season. When tender vines are exposed, a nighttime frost can kill them, and the only way to protect them is to water them to create a protective coating against the cold.

The north coast is doing better than the rest of the state, but those faring the best are wine growers who have taken up the call for sustainable farming.

A 2009 survey of wine grape growers by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance showed that more than three-quarters of growers had microirrigation systems in their vineyards and another 7 percent had engineered sprinkler irrigation systems. Both make more efficient use of water.

“It’s too early to quantify how the drought may affect the wine industry or wine consumers,” said Allison Jordan of the Winegrowing Alliance. “Fortunately, wine grape vineyards use less water than most crops and have withstood the last few years of drought.”

Chicken droppings and lunar cycles

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.”

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