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Can Sonoma County Dry-Farm Grapes?

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Can Sonoma County Dry-Farm Grapes?


By Ann Maurice

Dry farming of grapes is tried and true, with a thousand year old record of sustainability. So why are so many grape growers not doing dry-farming anymore? Because in the 1970s drip irrigation was introduced. Since grapes are sold by weight, growers knew they could increase tonnage per acre, and make more money by irrigating. So, to raise their “bottom line”, they ripped out most of the old vines planted in the late 1800s and early 1900s and replaced them with new rootstock that they watered.

How much water? Typically, a 5 acre vineyard uses about the same amount of water as a 5 acre homestead. Therefore, living next to a 35 acre vineyard, from a groundwater point of view, is like living next to a 7-home development. That’s a concern in water scarce areas, and a potential problem for neighbors because today, the big issue is depletion of groundwater!

So, what to do to conserve groundwater?
We have two options: either use less or find another source of water. As for grapes, I vote for dry-farming. It’s proven, it works, and I believe it is a growing trend in the industry. In Italy, France and Spain, for example, in many areas, growers must rely on natural rainfall because irrigation is illegal! Think of that! Some of the finest wines in the world have been produced for hundreds of years by dry-farming, allowing nature and rainfall to dictate.

Here in California, today, we see drip irrigation lines between the vines almost everywhere. But, with a growing concern about groundwater depletion, there is a corresponding trend to convert to dry-farming. Many growers say that while their dry-farmed yield is lower, the quality is higher and the fruit has a richer, deeper flavor reflecting the area where the vines are planted -- called by the French word, “terroir”.

Is anybody dry-farming grapes in Sonoma County
Emeritus pinot noir is grown on entirely dry-farmed vines on the Hallberg Ranch in Sebastopol; Bedrock Wine Company produces wine from hundred-year old vines on Sodini Vineyard in the Russian River Valley; Bucklin Old Hill Ranch, Frederick’s Vineyard, Pagani Ranch and Compagni Portis dry-farm in Sonoma Valley; Beeson Ranch, Sabari Vineyard and Bernier Zineyard in Dry Creek. There’s lots more choices if you consider Napa County -- Frog’s Leap, Dominus Estate, Napanook, Hayne, Meyer, Rachel Rossi, Smith-Madrone and Stony-Hill Vineyards; and up in Mendocino County there’s Poor Ranch, Mezzoni Home Ranch and Tollini.

Check out the Community Alliance for Family Farms (CAFF) website. They have an excellent article on dry-farming, and is the source of the above dry-farmed vineyard list.

An alternative?
In some circles, the idea is to replace groundwater with municipally treated wastewater for irrigation. We’re talking a lot about wastewater in Occidental these days. We’ve got an option to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant to a tertiary level adding ultra-violet disinfection to replace chlorine. What about irrigating local vineyards with Occidental’s treated wastewater instead of irrigating with groundwater? Hmmm... Is that a wise marketing strategy? Do we want West County to be known for its wastewater irrigated “terroir”? We buy free-range chicken and grass-fed beef and organic produce if we can afford it. Wastewater wine does not enhance that dinner table!

How much water would a typical vineyard use anyway?
If a 35 acre vineyard uses 1 - 2 acre feet in a growing season (325,000 - 650,000 gallons), that’s only about a month’s output of wastewater from Occidental! So, we’d have to spread wastewater over hundreds of acres of grapes to use up Occidental’s dry season effluent. 

Compare that to a better plan, which is to irrigate grasses. Sod consumes an outrageous amount of water. Only 6 acres of pasture would be needed to consume all of Occidental’s dry-season output! So, we say, dry-farm grapes and irrigate pasture and lawns with wastewater.

Can we encourage the wine industry to dry-farm?
Why not consumer-driven influence on the industry? Select dry-farmed wines for your dinner table. Consumer demand drove the beef industry to grass-fed and humanely treated animals, and less reliance on growth hormones and antibiotics. The dairy industry has greatly reduced reliance on synthetic bovine growth hormones (rBGH, rBST). Organic produce was once a specialty found only in “Health Food” stores. Today they’re everywhere. 

What about a “dry-farmed” wine section in the local supermarkets?
We’ve got gluten-free sections, sugar-free sections driven by market demand! Yes, we can influence the wine industry to dry-farm more acreage in Sonoma County, if we really want it to happen!

Comments:

I wanted to weigh in on the recent articles on dry-farming. I think over-all the articles are fair and well-intentioned but there are a few points I would like to make in support of current irrigation practices.

Ann Maurice points out that world-class wine is grown in Europe, where it is illegal to irrigate. This is true. It is my understanding that it rains in Europe during the summer, whereas in California it does not. Clearly if it rains, dry-farming is a more viable option.  

Both authors point out that not irrigating reduces yields. I’m not sure if it is possible as a non-farmer to understand the importance of this. Most of us grow plants as a hobby. We have the luxury to screw up our tomato crop, because we can still go buy them at the store. For a farmer the difference between 4 tons an acre and less than 1 ton an acre means exactly that. Take your current salary and multiply it by 1/4. I personally am not comfortable suggesting that people take such dramatic actions against their own self-interest.

Both authors are right that dry-farming hypothetically increases quality and potentially increases the price per ton, off-setting any reduction in yield. Grape-growers are very aware of this. Yield is directly proportional to the amount of water applied. And quality is generally associated with low yields. Grape-growers know that the best tool to lower yields and increase quality is less water. A lot of what grape- growers do during the growing season is measure the vine water status and limit the amount of water they are applying to the crop. It is a practice known as deficit irrigation and it is currently en vogue among quality grape-growers. I’m not aware of any other crop where reducing yield by withholding water is desirable. So it is a happy co-incidence that we grow grapes.

Finally, I have a separate point that I would like to make that I don’t think it would be fair to directly associate with the dry farming articles. To me this whole cry of “why not agriculture” comes across as out-of-touch. Let’s rewind 2000 years and ask our-selves what sort of society wouldn’t water their crops? It seems to me that irrigation has always been the most useful thing about water-- besides actually drinking it. Maybe we have reached a point where we have transcended the need for local agriculture. Maybe I’m using tired old thinking.

But, I would suggest that agriculture and grape growing are fundamental to this region’s vitality and that they are only viable with irrigation. Dry-farming seems cool. Just say it. “I dry-farmed that crop.” I invite everybody to try dry-farming in their gardens and landscapes this summer to find out just how cool it is. Deficit irrigation is realistic and actually way cooler. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. There is a happy medium that grape-growers have already accepted and are currently practicing. Thank you.  

Jesse Hill