Vineyards throughout California are finding themselves in a moral and economic crisis as the state’s worst drought ravishes the land. Vineyards are highly water dependent, but due to their luxury nature and the increase in demand for fine Californian wines, many have not done enough to adapt their business models to a new drought-tolerant paradigm.
Droughts have an intense effect on agriculture, increasing the costs and complexities for farms to bring water to its crops, and often altering or even destroying crops outright. In the United States, especially in the western and southwestern states, droughts have been a major, lasting issue affecting many industries. As an example, at the end of 2015, 69% of the land area in the state of California was classified as subject to “Extreme Drought” by the United States Drought Monitor and 100% of the state was classified as “Abnormally Dry”1. As temperatures have risen around the state, changing the hydrologic cycle, droughts have become exacerbated and prolonged. The current drought cycle, which has lasted for a number of years now, has effected Californians’ access to water. As a result of the drought, the state issued dramatic, state-wide water conservation targets, forcing farms and households to rethink the way they use water2.
In Napa Valley, some innovative wine producers are coming up with creative ways to irrigate their vineyards as droughts are fierce and prolonged. As an example the large-scale, well-known Francis Ford Coppola Winery is recycling their water waste for re-irrigation. Using a membrane bioreactor, the Coppola winery collects and filtrates waste water from around the winery to be used in the irrigation of its vines3. Therefore, the water it draws from nearby sources is significantly limited, even in light of the irrigation-dependent farming the vineyard employs. Despite the relief a machine such as this offers the stressed California water system, the cost can prohibit many smaller producers from enacting similar sustainability measures.
However, cheaper alternatives exist. Many vineyards in California and around the world practice a technique called “dry-farming”, which relies solely on natural rainfall for watering throughout the growing season with no irrigation during dry spells. The Sonoma County winery Emeritus Vineyards, has recently converted to dry-farming in response to recent droughts and in search for deeper flavor4. Over five years, Emeritus Vineyards let their vines go thirsty during dry spells, forcing them to dig their roots deeper into the ground.
When a vine is consistently watered, its roots congregate near the ground’s surface, soak up water as it lands, and become accustomed to and dependent on constant irrigation. Dry-farming, however, has an opposite effect on the roots of the plant. When a plant begins to be starved for water, its roots dig deep into the ground spreading over a greater coverage area in search for water. As a result, quick spurts of irrigation have little effect on the plant since there is no longer a bunching of roots near the surface.
While true that dry-farmed vineyards produce a lower yield of smaller grapes, there are enormous economic and business benefits to the conversion. Smaller grapes have greater skin-to-juice ratios offering more flavor. Further, many wine producers believe that as roots dig deeper into the ground, they are able to grab more terroir from the earth below translating into more complex wines. Since better tasting wines can demand greater prices, wineries can compensate for diminished yields from smaller grapes.
Using highly precise measurements and analytics, vineyards can calculate minimal optimal water requirements for their vines in order to ensure limited water waste. Soil moisture monitoring systems such as the EnviroSCAN or Neutron Probe system, provide detailed and precise information for wineries to monitor irrigation levels5. Vines can be overwatered as they reach an inflection point where increased irrigation offers no increase in yield. It is important for wine producers to understand this threshold and ensure that it is not surpassed. At the Rodney Strong Wine Estate, ground-level data is collected including the evaporation rate, vine spacing, soil composition, root structure, and many more data points to determine optimal watering levels. Last year the vineyard saved 18 million gallons of water ensuring limited over-irrigation.
While water reclamation and dry farming offer two solutions to increased drought tolerance for vineyards, wineries must think of more creative ways to become sustainable. As consumer luxury producers in prime agricultural real estate in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recorded history, wineries have a duty to consider alternative water solutions and water saving opportunities. (749 words)
- S. Drought Monitor , November 1, 2016. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA, accessed November 3, 2016.
- California State Water Resource Control Board. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/conservation_portal/, accessed November 3, 2016.
- Andrew Adams, “Winery Wastewater OK for Irrigation” . http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=158781, accessed November 3, 2016.
- Emeritus Vineyards. http://www.emeritusvineyards.com/?method=pages.showPage&PageID=2C7803ED-E175-576B-EFA5-449CF5AC242D&originalMarketingURL=farming, accessed November 3, 2016.
- “Water Use in Wineries”, April 20, 2014. http://www.colorado.edu/geography/class_homepages/geog_4501_sum14/Presentations/StExample-NCal%20Spr11.pdf, accessed November 3, 2016.