It was hot enough this summer to break out the Riesling, and the water shortage in California has a number of winemakers “sweating goblets” over what’s to become of their crops. While it may be too early to know what’s in store, many are taking the necessary precautions to protect their vineyards and secure their place during the industry’s present “dry season.”
Leading grape-growing region Paso Robles recently passed an ordinance condemning any and all new crops that require irrigation in the hopes that the area’s groundwater basins will go untouched. Several vineyard owners are suggesting that anyone possessing acreage remove older vines to help salvage water, while some argue that pruning early is a fantastic option to protect resources.
Winemaking is a leading industry in the Golden State, with about ninety percent of the nation’s bottles coming from California vineyards. The region is the world’s fourth leading producer of wine, behind only Italy, Spain and France. Over 1,500 vineyards decorate 48 counties; together, they’ve created nearly one million jobs and increased tourism, with over 20 million people visiting the state’s wineries each year.
One of the reasons for California’s wine-growing success is the overall timing of its rainfall. Most rain occurs between the winter months of November and March, with the heaviest showers coming in January and February when vines tend to remain dormant. This time, however, experts are encountering a severe case of the old “gloom-and-doom,” labeling California’s drought as one of the worst in 1,200 years.
“We’re at the level of prehistoric groundwater,” says Gelert Hart, who runs a vineyard on AmByth Estate just south of Paso Robles. “It’s the last little bit.”
A recent excursion through California’s central wine country revealed stark proof of the crisis. In every direction, I saw dried fields and thin clusters of vines, unevenly spread across choppy patches of dirt. These were not the picturesque “grape gardens” I had seen in pamphlets. These were ravaged, unstable lands in disarray, where salvation will likely remain absent for another three years.
The greatest distress calls stem from the San Joaquin Valley, which produces the highest lot of California-based wine. Federal and state sources provide the majority of water one finds in the area, though federal managers now only sell about five percent of what they normally provide. Leading water expert Jay Famiglietti states, “We may only be a few decades away from hitting the bottom.”
Yet despite California’s existing dry spell, some are questioning the necessity of cutbacks and restraints. So this year’s water deficiency has been declared amongst the worst in history. “Who cares?” they say. We’ve experienced over a dozen drought emergency proclamations since 1987, and central coast winemakers continue to prosper in both poor and “fruitful” periods. Those experiencing “drought doubt” acknowledge we’ve missed the boat on weather over the last few years, but in their minds, some absent rainfall isn’t likely to have long-term effects on the state’s viticulture.
Unfortunately, their castigations aren’t stopping vineyard owners from worrying, many of whom feel that if rainfall doesn’t increase by 2017, their vines are doomed to suffer. Dangerously low reservoirs are also “fertilizing” their fears, with areas such as Clear Lake bearing hydrogen levels half a foot above the “zero” mark.
“People chronically underestimate their water consumption by a factor of at least two,” says Jeff Lipton, marketing director for California-based WaterSmart. “This leads people to undervalue changes in behavior that can have a dramatic impact on water-use efficiency.”
The drought has increased costs for the majority of producers, causing respective price hikes among lesser brands. Some of California’s top winemakers now say they’ve lost customers to both craft beers and foreign labels.
“The challenge this year will be wines selling at $7 and below, as that price segment is retracting in volume,” reports president of Allied Grape Growers Nat DiBuduo. “That market and those growers may face another difficult year.”
Some, like Keith Wallace of the Wine School of Philadelphia, are offering buyers some unique advice to help them cope with California’s harshening conditions. Granted water sources are unable to recuperate in the coming decade, Wallace hopes die-hard enthusiasts never have to go without.
“The quality may be dropping soon,” he says of California wine reserves. “You want to buy [good vintages] and have them for a couple of years. They may disappear someday. You want to have them before that.”
Lack of rain has affected California’s overall backdrop. Approximately 102 million trees have perished from the ongoing drought, with nearly 40 million dying in just the last six months alone. Landscapes, once green and forested, are being replaced with gold, barren plains that put residents at risk for wildfires like never before.
“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” states U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
California is not alone in its misery. Five-thousand miles south, Bolivia is enduring what is arguably its worst drought in nearly 30 years. Livestock has died, residents are unable to bathe and President Evo Morales has declared a national emergency. Men like Coriaco Mamani, whose parents harvest quinoa in the southern highlands, are witnessing crop yields reduced by half.
“There’s almost no quinoa this year,” he explains. “My parents depend on the harvest for their survival. I’m not sure what they will do.”
In the end, figures like Wallace state that proper measures must be taken if change is to occur, and conservation efforts must be enforced on a serious basis.
“Nobody wants to say, ‘We are suffering’ because that’s really bad for business,” he explains. “No one wants to say their investment is dying. Now, we are in that point where we will start hearing about it. At the end of the day, the vines need water, and you have to get it to them somehow.”
The state has imposed a “20 percent reduction usage goal by 2020.” The Department of Agriculture has pledged $10 million towards water conservation efforts, and an additional $8 billion towards water projects over the next ten years.
“We are seeing more government programs and charities reaching out to help,” says crop specialist Milt McGiffen of UC Riverside.