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California Wineries Confront Historic Drought

With no rain in sight, reservoirs are empty and vintners fear a small crop even before the vines wake up

James Laube, Tim Fish
Posted: January 21, 2014

Winemaker Elias Fernandez saw something in January that he’d never seen before in three decades: the bottom of the reservoirs at Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley.

He isn't the only Californian seeing water turn to sand and dirt. The state is suffering from a frightening drought. Already, 2013 was the driest year on record, and 2014 has brought no relief. A large high-pressure system, stretching from Mexico to Oregon, has parked itself off the coast, diverting any rain north into Canada and Alaska (and helping create the polar vortex conditions that froze much of the rest of the United States recently).

Winter months are crucial to California's complex water system—snow normally builds up in the Sierra Nevada mountains during cold months, then melts and provides water for 25 million people and a $45 billion farming sector, including thousands of vineyards. A survey by the state department of water resources earlier this month found the snow was 20 percent of the average January level. Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought Jan. 17. There is widespread fear that statewide water rationing will be implemented on residences and businesses. Some cities have already imposed restrictions.

Meanwhile, temperatures were balmy in parts of the state last week, and some people hit the beaches. Water levels have fallen more than 80 percent in Folsom Lake near Sacramento, revealing a Gold Rush-era town that had sat beneath the waters for decades.

No one in California’s wine industry is panicking just yet, but vintners are definitely nervous. Some of the growing regions in Napa Valley got less rain than Las Vegas in 2013. Paso Robles, on the California Central Coast, received 1.92 inches of rain instead of the average 12.78 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

"I was driving around Paso Robles a few weeks ago and it looked like a desert," Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars said. Justin Smith of Saxum, another Paso winery, agreed. “I've never seen a December, let alone a January, where the hills aren't covered with a beautiful green cover crop,” said Smith.

Droughts are nothing new in the Golden State, but this is historic. So far, growers and winemakers are optimistic that a few heavy storms will at least water the vines and fill the reservoirs. February is often the wettest month of the year; January is the second dampest.

But while the vines are dormant right now, last week's warm spell could start sap flowing. In dry years, budbreak typically comes early, which increases the risk of frost stunting the crop. Frost season is approaching and most vintners spray water on their vines to protect them with a layer of ice. "No one has enough water for frost protection," said Steve Dutton of Dutton Ranch, which farms 1,100 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County.

Vineyards don't need a lot of water to survive, although the lack of rain and continued sunny weather could eventually affect the crop. Winemakers said they would prune heavily and thin to keep the crop at a minimum, focusing on ripening whatever crop they have at the expense of volume. All they can do for now is manage what little water they have and pray for rain.

Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  January 22, 2014 4:59pm ET
How does this "historic" drought compare to the consecutive drought years of 1976 and 1977?
James Laube
Napa —  January 22, 2014 5:40pm ET
Tom, good question. The '76-'77 drought years had about 34 inches total rainfall in the North Bay for the two years and two small crops. The short '76 crop was more dehydrated and produced unusually concentrated and tannic reds. From Napa, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Beaulieu Private Reserve, Chateau Montelena (North Coast) and Caymus Special Selection were four that I recall were among the better Cabernets. The '76 Heitz Bella Oaks was the only vintage I recall where the Bella Oaks bottling rivaled the Martha's Vineyard bottling.

The 1977s were more graceful, but still impacted by the drought. By then, many vineyards had installed drip irrigation and were better prepared to deal with the drought. Cabernets from Montelena, Ridge Monte Bello, Sterling, Mayacamas, Heitz and Mount Eden all made excellent wines, but they were very different in style.

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