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Is There Rain on the Horizon for California’s Vineyards?

2013 was the driest year on record, and 2014 is one big question mark
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 15, 2014 10:00am ET

California is thirsty—and not for wine. It barely rained in 2013, and the wine industry is worried.

How bad is it? Some of the growing regions in Napa Valley got less rain than Las Vegas. Paso Robles, on the California Central Coast, got 1.92 inches of rain in 2013 instead of the average 12.78, according to the National Weather Service. By comparison, Death Valley got 2.17 inches.

That makes 2013 the driest year on record in California, and the records go back to about 1880. Droughts are nothing new here, but this is a new level of parched. It doesn't help that 2012 was an exceptionally dry year as well.

What does that mean to wine? So far, growers and winemakers aren't feeling the pain, unless anxiety counts. The vines are dormant right now, so that's not an issue, but the seasons in California's winegrowing regions are quite distinct. Most of the annual rain comes in just four months: December through March.

Vineyard reservoirs are low and getting lower as growers make up for lost rain. "No one has enough water for frost protection," said Steve Dutton of Dutton Ranch, which farms 1,100 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County. Many growers use sprinkler systems against frost, spraying a protective coat of water on the vines.

Cover crops, which bring nutrients and trap moisture for the vines, are almost non-existent. Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker and vineyard manager of Turley Wine Cellars, farms Zinfandel and Petite Sirah around the state. Cover crops, which grow between the rows of his organic vineyards, typically have reached 18 inches by now, but most are 3 inches tall at best this year.

"I was driving around Paso Robles a few weeks ago and it looked like a desert there," Passalacqua said.

No one in the wine industry is panicking at this point. Vineyards don't need a lot of water to survive, although the lack of rain and continued sunny weather could eventually affect the crop. In dry years, budbreak typically comes early, which increases the risk of frost stunting the crop. "It's most likely going to be a smaller harvest," Passalacqua said. "After having big harvests two years in a row, the vineyards are exhausted."

Long-range forecasts suggest that February could finally bring rain, and some models suggest a rainy spring is ahead, but it's just too soon to tell. "If we can get 15 to 20 inches of rain by April 1, we'll be just fine," Dutton said. If not, "Well, it would be devastating."

For now, a lot of fingers are crossed in California wine country.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  January 15, 2014 1:17pm ET
I'm pruning back by 20 to 25% in my vineyards this year on account of the drought and the fact we have had two high production years in a row.

Yes, it's very ominous. I also forecast a lower yielding year. The good news is that lower rainfall years can make more concentrated reds.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  January 15, 2014 8:27pm ET
Thanks for the comment Mark. Rain dance anyone?
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 15, 2014 11:36pm ET
I am going to sacrifice a 2007 Schrader to the rain gods! Hopefully that will appease them…….
Rob Stenhouse
Darien, CT —  January 18, 2014 11:52am ET
If only Charles Hatfield and his rainmaking formula were still around...
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  January 18, 2014 12:04pm ET
More concentrated and California wine are two words we don't need in the same sentence. Already enough issues with 15-16% alcohol wines.
Homer Cox
Virginia —  January 19, 2014 4:20pm ET
Tim, regardless of how bad it is or may get I am confident you will still identify some good values.

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