Winemaker's Journal - January 2014

My Take on the Drought

The number one question asked to me this winter is: “How is the drought affecting the wine industry?” My short answer: “It’s not looking good, but the party’s not over yet.”

2014 is lowest rain year on record.First, rainfall varies widely in California from region to region. Nevertheless, the current drought seems to be affecting all regions uniformly. Let’s take a look at the numbers followed by their potential impact on agriculture.

Multiple sources say California is now in its third straight year of drought, and that 2013 had the lowest rainfall on record since 1849. Current water year totals (July to June) near our grapes sources are not encouraging. Los Gatos: 10% of normal rainfall to date; Santa Cruz: 8% of normal; Paso Robles and Healdsburg: 7% of normal.

Notable droughts since 1960 include one lasting from 1974 to 1977 and another from 1987 to 1992. The silver lining is that we’ve faced water shortages before, but we were able to bounce back.

The Drought’s Effect on Agriculture

The drought is already affecting grazing lands that rely solely on rainfall. Many ranchers have been forced to purchase feed for cattle and horses while some oat-hay producers did not plant fields in the fall of 2013. Similarly, dry-farmed orchards and vineyards could also be unduly stressed.

Even irrigated vines could feel the pinch because soils rely on winter rains to replenish the soil profile at depths of 3 – 12 feet (and above the aquifer) to a level called “field or holding capacity.” Additionally, growers in some areas may be asked to reduce irrigation, thus setting the stage for problems later in the season during heat spikes. Furthermore, there will be some concentration of naturally occurring salts (calcium, magnesium and sodium) that leach below the root zone with normal rainfall. A moderate buildup of these salts adversely affects vine growth while extreme concentrations may defoliate the vines.

Summary

Despite the paltry numbers, all is not doom and gloom — the wine industry will survive this year. The size of the 2014 crop is expected to be below average due to the drought as well as it following two consecutive bumper crops, but small crops often show concentrated flavors. Vines also reached beneficial deep dormancy this winter because overnight temperatures were especially low in November and December.

Finally, some water districts have reserves in aquifers and storage tanks to survive one or two drought years, and experts point out that the water year is not officially over.

“Things can change quickly this time of year … we still have almost six months to go,” said Jan Null, the former lead forecaster at the Bay Area’s National Weather Service office. “There are terms in the water community such as Fabulous February, Miracle March, and Awesome April. All of these have been used when we’ve turned things around after the first half of the water year.”

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