Home Wine Business Editorial Recent Rain Does Little to Alleviate Drought in Northern California

Recent Rain Does Little to Alleviate Drought in Northern California

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Wine Industry Not “Overreacting” to Dry Conditions

By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

Mark Greenspan
Mark Greenspan speaking about water management at Sonoma County Winegrowers conservation event.

While many welcomed the light storm system that dampened North Coast skies last weekend, the resulting moisture did little to alleviate drought concerns among the agricultural communities throughout northwestern California.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that just .08 of an inch of rain fell at Sonoma County’s regional airport on Saturday and dry conditions are expected to persist throughout the area for the next seven to 10 days.

The impact of such an abnormally dry year is raising eyebrows and concerns within the wine industry, which counts on winter storms to replenish the valuable groundwater systems that sustain grapevine crops into the spring and summer months ahead. What the drought conditions will actually mean for the California wine business is still largely a matter of speculation, but some are taking precautionary measures in case things get a whole lot worse.

“It’s a new reality,” admits Mark Greenspan, a Water Management Specialist with Advanced Viticulture. “In my experience, we’ve never had a dry period like this before.”

Greenspan said in more typical years, North Coast vineyard soils are filled to capacity by this time in the season. He estimates it takes about a foot of rain within a month to two month time period to achieve that, which gives the vines a large reservoir of water to draw on until July, August or even September.

“This year we may start off the season without a full profile of water,” Greenspan said. “If that occurs, we’ll have to irrigate earlier than normal to counteract.”

Greenspan says other drought mitigation measures include tilling cover crops into the soil to remove competition for water from the grapes. While those lush crops act to stabilize soil with erosion protection and provide plants with valuable soil nutrients, they too require water resources, which, Greenspan says “in a dry year … is your enemy.”

Greenspan also mentioned limiting vine size to reduce water usage and, if the situation becomes more serious, he says viticulturists may choose to cutback on overall vineyard crop size.

“That’s the part everybody is shuddering about,” he says. “But if we don’t get enough water, we’ll have to conserve wherever we can – and that may include thinning crop.”

Glenn Proctor is a partner in the Ciatti Company, a global wine and grape brokerage business for more than 40 years. He cautions against overreacting to California’s current drought conditions, pointing out that it’s still early in the season.

“If we get some healthy rains in the next three weeks, we’re not going to be talking about this,” Proctor says.

A recent report published by Bloomberg and attributed to Ciatti states that grape growers in the central part of the state are tearing out vines and replacing them with less water-intensive crops like almonds in response to the drought. Proctor maintains that some of the information from the Ciatti report was, perhaps, taken out of context.

“That’s not what we were trying to say,” Proctor clarifies. “Some vines are being pulled out of California, yes – but they’re mostly coming from lower yielding, older vineyards.”

Proctor points out that viticulture is a long-term, expensive investment of time and resources and says that the decision to tear out vineyards is a serious one for growers.

“If you spend  $10 to $14 thousand an acre to purchase property in the valley and another $12 to $14 thousand an acre to develop that property, because of one bad year you’re going to pull it out? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Proctor maintains that California still has a healthy number of vines and in fact up to 30,000 acres of wine grapes were replanted the last two years. He acknowledges that there’s widespread concern throughout the industry about water, but not panic.

“The conversation is about how do we mitigate and prepare ourselves for what’s going to happen,” Proctor reports. “This is not average and we’re adjusting to that – but it doesn’t mean we’re only going to get seven inches of rain a year (from here on out). We could get some late spring rains that could fill up soil profiles and some reservoirs. The reality is, we just don’t know yet.

“As people get more information, they’ll make some decisions,” he asserts. “In the ag business, you either enjoy that and adapt to that, or you get out.”

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