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Wine, Water & Dirt - Part 1 by Don Wallace


Wine, Water & Dirt

Part 1

By Don Wallace aka “The Dirt Guy”

Many years ago our staff at Dry Creek Vineyard gave me the nickname “Dirt Guy” because of my fascination with the relationship between plants and dirt. I have spent the last 25 years trying to understand two things. One is what varieties of grapes taste the best when grown on what soil/environment. The second daunting question that mostly plagued me in the beginning of my career was why our vineyards were dying so young. On one hand we were, and continue, to make wine from an old Zinfandel vineyard that was planted in the late 1800s. On the other hand, we had young vineyards dying at a fairly young age by comparison. Why? Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about our environment, and more than I wanted to know about politics, and the relationship between farmers and those wanting to live in the unincorporated areas of our County. 

I have been asked to write about the changes seen over my time here in the wine industry. When I first moved here in the 1970s it was a much quieter place and the farmers looked a lot like the farmers I grew up with in Nevada. They wore lace up work boots, faded jeans with real holes from wear and tear, and at the end of the day were dirty from an honest day’s work. Frankly, I think the public was more comfortable with us then than now? 

Truth is not much has really changed since then except the economics and the competitive nature of farming. For the most part we have gone from plain old happy farmers who everyone was ok with to agribusiness professionals in order to save the farm and compete with the rest of the world of wine. If you’ll remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Australian wines were sold everywhere, even in our own backyard. 

Over time, things have changed. People started coming to our farmlands to visit and taste wine. Well, they too fell in love with the land and naturally, started moving here. As it became increasingly fashionable to move here, instead of living in towns as they do in the agricultural areas of Europe, they wanted to be right in the middle of a vineyard! Right or wrong, this has changed everything. Personally, I like the European model which seemingly prevents urban sprawl as well as tension between farmers and newcomers. 

The other thing that hasn’t changed that much is water. If you don’t have enough, everyone wants it. If there is too much, people get depressed. Just ask someone from Western Washington. I can remember one year that it rained over 30 days straight and the whole County got a little screwy. 

A few years ago several of us got wind of a deal that was poised to trade our water rights for treated waste water. We went to work on finding out what that meant and one of the things we did to achieve that goal was pay for a hydrology study of the Dry Creek Valley. We wanted to know how much water we were using and what the history of water use looked like going back in time. I believe the study ran from 1955-2006. Back in 1955, collectively everyone that lived in Dry Creek Valley contributed to the use of 10,000 acre feet of water. There were a lot of other crops being raised here. Grapes shared the land with plums for prunes. (Frankly prunes never really held my attention…not very upwardly mobile as far as fruit goes.) 

There were many different row crops, like beans for instance. There was still quite a bit of land committed to hops for beer as well. But there were no huge houses with swimming pools, English gardens, bowling greens, and the like. Just farmers doing what we do-raising crops and a few wineries mostly producing bulk wines. The surprising fact that we discovered from the report is that as of 2006, Dry Creek Valley was still using that very same 10,000 acre feet of water! Way less water per capita and per acre, despite the increase in planted acreage and all those new “dream” homes that keep popping up. 

We are faced with difficult times ahead. Sonoma County is in some ways suffering from her wonderful potential, the same potential that attracted Luther Burbank. As a community, we need to work together to find answers. Going to a meeting and yelling at the guy with another viewpoint doesn’t do anybody any good. We all need to educate ourselves on both sides of the issues, finding out the facts so we can find intelligent solutions that will work for everyone. 

The farmers I know are great people who care about the environment as much as anyone. What is frustrating are the few “bad apples” in our industry that make others question our industry in general. The Board of Supervisors and PRMD are working hard, along with a diverse group covering most viewpoints, to try to find solutions to the many problems facing our way of life and the environment that we all so cherish. 

Thankfully, we live in a democracy where we can be part of the decision process.