Growing Grapes without Irrigation

Posted by Keith Wallace

In 2015, California’s Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order that included a mandatory 25% water reduction. Not surprisingly, the news went national; this was a first in America.  

Future of Winemaking

A week before that historic announcement, I worked on an article with Anita Balakrishnan,  an NBC journalist from California. The article was meant to focus on how the current Californian drought would affect winemaking in the future. Instead, it got caught up in the Governor’s news cycle and ended up being about how drought affects wine today. 

Dead Grape Vines

To save our vineyards and to insure that wine exists past the next twenty years, we need another movement  We need sommeliers and wine writers to champion dry farming.

The churn of news cycles makes it difficult to inject nuance into a topic. For instance, the article we were working on focused on an intriguing idea: the continuing drought could change wine growing for the better.

Those necessary changes were not being talked about back in 2015, and they still aren’t.

Natural Wine

If you talk to sommeliers about the future of winemaking, they typically point out organic, biodynamic, and natural winemaking. Wine writers like Alice Feiring often write stories that these styles of wine are a blueprint for sustainable winemaking.

In many ways, I want to encourage them. I love the punk-rock sentiment of thumbing your nose at the modern world and making a go of it old-school style.  I love the flawed and mercurial wines their favored winemakers often produce.  But that’s because I drink for a living, and I sometimes get tired of drinking perfect wines all the time (yeah, tough life).

Dry Farming

For all the noise the natural wine movement makes, I am sorry to say that they are tragically on the wrong side of history. Natural winemaking is a noble but dead end. To save our vineyards and to insure that wine exists past the next twenty years, we need another movement.  We need sommeliers and wine writers to champion dry farming.

Drip Irrigation

Currently, almost all vineyards in California are drip-irrigated. The average amount of water used to make a gallon of wine is about 6 gallons, but that can rise to a staggering 20 gallons in some California wine regions.  As the cost of water climbs, so will the cost of wine,  but that isn’t the most important outcome.

If there isn’t enough water, vineyards and farms will be cut off from their water supplies. People will always come before grapes and grain. That isn’t merely theoretical. In 2015, the Federal government announced that the Central Valley farms would not have access to irrigated water that year. That edict created a dust bowl of about a half-million acres of farmland.

Head Pruned Vines

We need to replant our vineyards in a similar manner as Europe did after the devastation of Phylloxera at the turn of the 20th century. We need our vineyards to be more like European ones, which traditionally don’t use irrigation.  

This means rebuilding vineyards to be dry-farmed. That means pulling vines and changing the spacing of the rows. It means using different types of rootstock and trellising. It also means growing grapes only in places that can retain water and places that the vines do not need protection from frost.

Higher Quality

An unintended consequence (well, for me, it is intended) of dry farming is a higher quality wine. Let’s get the ball rolling so we can do as that corny bumper sticker says for years to come: conserve water by drinking wine.

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