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What the Drought Means for California Wine

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Photo: Courtesy Chryss Yost
Photo: Courtesy Chryss Yost

Earlier this month in Sacramento, Governor Brown issued an official drought declaration. In Sonoma, after last year's record dry year, some vineyards ponder whether it's better to lose this year's harvest by cutting all the fruit to save the vines themselves. In San Luis Obispo County, people have had to dig wells twice as deep, from 350 to 700 feet, to reach the once plenteous aquifer. Throughout the state, local governments are trying to establish new drought-related rules.

And in Santa Barbara County, winemakers and vineyard owners are wary, if not full-out worried. "It's truly too early to tell what the final outcome of the current conditions will be -- we still have a long way to go to get to harvest and a lot can happen from now to then," says Larry Schaffer, owner of and winemaker at Tercero Wines. "I'm already anticipating smaller crop levels this year than last, noting that we've had larger than normal crop levels the past two years."

Winemakers seems perhaps even more concerned for the 2015 growing season than this one, for as Matt Murphy, president of Presqu'ile Winery, says, "We are watching conditions in the vineyard closely but fortunately the Santa Maria Valley, at least for now, has a plentiful, easily accessible water supply. We do not expect to see any major impact to our ground water supply this year but prolonged drought over several years could obviously degrade our water table."

This drought, after all, isn't something that's too surprising in a Southern California that isn't particularly known for rain even in its wettest years. "We have been actively reducing water inputs to our vineyard blocks in an attempt to move away from a reliance on 'full season' irrigation," relates Matt Dees, winemaker at Jonata Wines. "In a potentially drought-ridden future California, a gradual movement towards dry farming vineyards is the only way to responsibly manage vines and promote a healthy and stable property. We will still need to rely on some help from Mother Nature in the form of winter rains. Without this help, we will eventually be crippled by salt damage and inhospitable soil conditions. If the drought turns out to be long term, it could affect future vineyard plantings by eliminating many potential vineyard sites due to a lack of stable and consistent water sources."

In the short term, the 2014 vintage might be trickier for a winemaker like Schaffer, who owns no vineyards, than it will for Murphy or Dees, who have estate fruit. "I am concerned because I purchase all of my fruit from different vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County," Schaffer points out. "Therefore, if a vineyard is adversely affected, I am bound to get less fruit than I am contracted for, and this will affect how much wine I am able to produce."

Less water can mean not as strong vines, so as Murphy explains it, "We will be keeping a close eye on vine vigor, cluster weights, and number of clusters per shoot. If necessary we will cluster thin and shoot thin to maintain appropriate vineyard balance if we see reduced vine vigor." And all that thinning of clusters and shoots mean grapes never even get a chance to grow, let alone end up in a bottle at your table.

Will that mean pricier bottles when the 2014 vintage hits the shelves (hello, Five-Buck Chuck)? "It's hard to say," Schaffer wonders. "We've had bumper crops these last two years but I'm not seeing any wineries rolling back prices because of increased volumes. If the economic climate for wine remains as strong as it has been recently, you may see select wineries increasing pricing to soften the blow of a lower volume of wine produced."

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