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Why California Drought May be a Mixed Blessing

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 2, 2009 4:39pm ET

Weather is never far from our minds, whether it dictates how we dress or, in the case of our present drought in California, what the lack of water may mean for vintage 2009. Only the economic slump trumps weather this year.

The weather in Northern California the past two weeks has been glorious. It’s been cold and frosty in the mornings, but warm and sunny during the day. This past weekend felt more like April or May than February, which is often one of the wettest months in Northern California. January is usually the wettest , but this year it was almost rain-free.

The lack of rain is starting to make winegrowers nervous. With this being the third year of drought, water is already scarce, supplies are low and if the weather stays unseasonably warm, grapevines will be tricked into thinking it’s already time to get busy making grapes.

The good news is that forecasts call for rain in the form of a couple of storms later this week. But it’s not likely to be enough to return water supplies to normal. That means winemakers will have to pay special attention to how they ration water, since the wet stuff is crucial to frost protection, which is No. 3 on people’s minds.

Last year’s late frost hammered many vineyards, cutting tonnage by up to 75 percent and leading to a small crop. That was especially tough on small vineyard operations. In the bigger picture, though, the small crop in 2008 may be a blessing in this tough market. It means less wine was made and less wine will need to be sold and inventories will shrink.

Given the state of economic affairs, about the last thing California needs in 2009 is a bumper crop. Looking at rainfall figures and prospects for this year, a big crop hardly looks like its in the cards. That may be the best thing about a drought—frost or no frost.

Mary Constant
Calistoga —  February 2, 2009 6:06pm ET
Mr. Laube, Since the 09 crop will be in the barrel for about 2 years and the bottle for 1...are you predicting that the economic outlook three years from now will be grim? As a grape farmer in these terrible times a good crop would sure be welcome. Can you expand your logic?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 2, 2009 7:34pm ET
Mary, indeed it's early in the year, but the drought means there won't be a big crop and with all the unsold wine and backed up inventories, many if not most wineries don't need more wine to sell and even if they did need greater volume they won't get it in 2009, according to the winemakers I've talked to. But yes, a great vintage in 2009 would be welcome, as great years always are. My information comes from interviews with winemakers and growers who expect 2009 to be a challenging year in the vineyard. As for the economic outlook, I expect the wine industry's health to mirror the broader economy which is undergoing a major correction.
Dave Goldstein
Atlanta —  February 2, 2009 8:16pm ET
James, can you provide any insight into the 2007 Sonoma and/or RR pinot's?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 2, 2009 8:51pm ET
James, on a related vintage note, many are making it sound like 2007 is going to be as good as 2004 with respect to RRV & Sonoma Pinot. Any thoughts? Kosta Browne just started taking orders today, but the wine dollars are a lot fewer this year and I want to be wise. Will there be KB tasting notes before 2/22/09 (the end of the allocation period)? Thanks in advance for any light you can shed!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 3, 2009 2:56pm ET
Dave, Troy, I'll get to that subject/s soon.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 5, 2009 6:05pm ET
Kosta Browne just bottled its '07s, so I won't see them until April or so.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  February 5, 2009 8:28pm ET
The weather channel shows that you are getting some rain now and a little more in the near forcast. How much is enough, and how much is too much. I know Merlot likes deep moist soil. What varietals would suffer most should the drought continue.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 5, 2009 8:36pm ET
We got about a quarter inch or so in Napa today, just enough to wet the dust; we could probably use 15 inches. Water for frost protection is crucial to many sites and for young vines. If the vines start to push and it stays dry and warm, that often leads to frosts. Last year's was the worst in 35 or so years.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  February 9, 2009 11:57am ET
I talked to the Man upstairs, then checked the ten day forcast. Looks like He is listining!I'll be there in two weeks, so is it alright if we ask him to let up a little from the 20th through the 24th? Now if everyone would just join me in bringing UP the issue of this economy we will get about the business of healing this land.

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