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Wine Banter by John Haggard - Time to re-assess dry farming


Wine Banter by John Haggard
Time to re-assess dry farming

Dino Amantite - Bedrock Wine Company, Pagani Ranch, Sonoma Valley

Another drought year is an opportunity to re-asses the viability of dry-farming and, while yields may be lower, quality often goes up. And even for those who have selected new hybrid clone root-stock, demanding more water, now is the time to look to dry-farming again.  

Dry farms tend to yield less fruit per acre and consistency is always an issue. When employing dry farming methods, the root stock is being allowed to find the water table. It’s a struggle, and in the first three years in our California climate, the root stock will need the assistance of a drip system. Of course, soil compositions will dictate heavily on whether or not the bud-wood grafted onto the root-stock has an opportunity to produce, and there are many other factors such as the slope of the land, the amount of sun, and the sun-strike to the vineyard that will determine if the root-stock will be provided enough energy to reach the water-table and allow the vines to thrive.

Typically a drip system will be used for the root-stock to become established for the first three years. Submerged drip systems are far more effective as there is less evaporation and let’s not forget with every soil composition moisture is either retained or simply drains away, be it clay or sand.

The struggle to reach the water table creates character and quality. The berry is supported by the root-stock. The protein comes into the root-stock and that comes into the berry to produce as many seeds as possible. The grapegrower is looking to increase the tons per acre but the actual grapevine is not necessarily a willing participant – it simply wants to make as many seeds as possible - and it’s only with vineyard management you begin to create balance allowing the vine to create its seeds and the yield to reach a satisfactory tonnage.

Of course, the struggle for water is key but still just a part of the vine’s story and its journey to producing a great wine. Will the fruit undergo carbonic maceration? (meaning the berries are left on the stem, and punched down on the stem). If ever you taste a red wine and you taste cinnamon, that is what’s known as carbonic – however, with every palate being completely different – it may also be you’re tasting oak and that oak may also be experienced as cinnamon on the palate.

Of course, as well as the struggle for water, there’s the struggle for sunlight and warmth. Some varietals require eight or more hours of sunshine. These varietals oftentimes want to stay warm throughout the evening. Once the sun has fallen past the mountains, some clones become very cold and chilled and despite every effort they simply never produce the flavors in a consistency of their clonal varietal and they become green bell-pepper or “stemy” in flavor. It is not always possible to understand every vintage and how each vintage for every varietal on every rootstock with every budwood will come out vintage to vintage. Truth be told, not every grape-grower in our county has the opportunity to dry farm, but some do.

If you are successful in dry-farming, the roots reach the water table and after five years, you will no longer need to water, provided you are in a suitable location and have a willingness to accept lower yields.

With the drought that we’re currently in, I can only suggest that perhaps this is the new direction we might move in as this is where we came from. We never had, 160 years ago, sprinkler systems. The wells were used strictly for the family and with water becoming so valuable I find no reason not to look back for our future.  There’s no reason to believe that quality will suffer. In fact, with innovation we have the opportunity to make this work. I look forward to seeing what is ahead and saving one of our most precious resources, water…


John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, Sonoma Wine Tasting in Duncans Mills, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open Thu, Sat, Sun and Mon: 11am – 5pm, Fri:  11am-7pm (Local’s Night, Friday, 4-7pm, and you don’t have to be a local to join us).

Wine Banter, by John Haggard of Sophies Cellars, Duncans Mills, CA