Cline Family Cellars’ dry-farmed grapevines. (Courtesy of Cline Family Cellars)
by Lela Nargi
California’s most recent drought lasted many long, parched years—eight in some regions—before ending in 2017 to the relief of everyone in and out of agriculture. For the state’s grape growers, it meant respite from parched vines putting out small berries and leaves and showing other signs of stress.
More on Dry Farming
“It was hard to walk through some vineyards and see vines dying, and there was nothing you could do,” says Tegan Passalacqua, director of winemaking for Turley Wine Cellars. “Some vineyards lost 300 vines in one year. Talk to the old timers, and they’ll tell you—they never remember that happening.”
There was plenty of suffering to go around, but some vineyards fared less terribly than others—historic parcels east of San Francisco, in Contra Costa County, for example. Planted at the turn of the last century by Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish immigrants, they rely on a technique called dry farming rather than irrigation.
While these vineyards did not go unscathed during the drought, they did manage to “acclimatize,” says Charlie Tsegeletos, director of winemaking for Cline Cellars, which owns about 150 acres of heritage vineyards in the county and contracts from another 300 acres.
All around them, Contra Costa is experiencing an explosion of development. The allure of living amid the old vineyards’ leafy, picturesque rows is, ironically, threatening their continued existence. Tsegeletos says offers of hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre are hard to pass up for vineyard heirs with little interest in continuing the family business. With development has come concern that if these vineyards disappear, the knowledge the county’s dry farms can offer other wine-growing systems in fast-drying regions may also fade away.
A critical lesson of dry farming “is that there are options,” says Matt Dees, winemaker at Jonata Vineyard in Southern California.
Passalacqua says this past, balmy year in California was a “healing” time for vineyards, and sufficient winter rains allowed viticulturists to almost forget the specter of drought. But there’s no looking away from the changing climate. Vintners and winemakers are experiencing “a lot of urgency,” says Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). “I have great hope that we will find a way through.”
The Tenets of Dry Farming
Two years ago, while contemplating the extreme variability in recent rainfall, Dees planted two experimental acres of dry-farmed grapes in a Jonata vineyard in Ballard Canyon. He’d gotten to thinking, “What if the drought continues? What if nine inches of rain a year is the new normal? We’d better be ready.”
Dry farming, a method that’s been used for centuries to grow grapes, almonds, and olives in Mediterranean countries, requires soils with enough structure to hold moisture from seasonal rains for months at a time—in California, these rains happen between October and April. One method is to plant young vines that are grafted to vigorous rootstocks relatively far apart and water them for only their first two years in the ground. The point is to encourage their roots to dig deep into the dirt from which they’ll pull stored rainwater starting in year three.
“In dry farming, you’re putting resistance into the system,” says Stephen Gliessman, an emeritus agroecologist at the University of Santa Cruz who also co-owns the dry-farmed vineyard Condor’s Hope in the Cuyama Valley of northern Santa Barbara County.
Though plenty of wine grape growers in the state practice dry farming, the method represents a drop in the bucket of a $70 billion business. Tightly spaced, high-yield, drip-irrigated vineyards are much in favor; their practices encourage roots to hang out near the surface of the soil, where they expect to find water—and they can’t survive without a frequent fix.
Dry-farming yields per acre can be lower; some estimates put them at two to three tons per acre, versus three to four tons for premium grapes. Fans of wines made from dry-farmed grapes, however, extoll their more complex flavors. “But vineyards today are too focused on maximizing yields rather than adapting to local conditions so they’re not so dependent on water,” Gliessman says. “They’re using a limited resource, and climate change makes it worse.”
Small Farms Experimenting with New (Old) Methods
Gliessman and his neighbors in the near-desert of Cuyama could watch this scenario play out at a vineyard owned by the company that manages Harvard University’s endowment. North Fork Vineyard’s irrigation system is drawing what Gliessman calls “excessive” groundwater from one of those 21 critically over-drafted aquifers. This water use has raised the hackles of residents, who are waiting to see how SGMA, which spurred Cuyama’s Groundwater Management Plan, will affect the valley starting next year.
Harvard’s vineyard, says Gliessman, is a prime example—although certainly not the only one—of grapes being planted in a manner that is not appropriate for the land and the available water. “Companies growing grapes industrially have to start accepting the fact that water-intensive systems are going to have to change.”
At the moment, though, it’s smaller wineries that seem most open to adapting. This is partly to do with finances. Big companies can afford to shell out for increasingly expensive water rights where needed, or purchase additional acres in cooler places, like British Columbia, says David Runsten, policy director of sustainability advocacy organization Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). Smaller operations, he says, “are stuck where they are. But can they dry farm?”
Jonata’s Dees is not the only one trying. More than half of Turley’s 50 vineyards across the state practice dry farming. Cline is experimenting with own-rooted—as opposed to grafted—vines on some near-dry-farmed blocks at its home base in Sonoma; Tsegeletos calls it “risky” due to pest concerns. Tablas Creek, in Paso Robles, mostly dry farms its roughly 120 acres and has set up 30 acres the “old-fashioned California way,” with vines far apart and no irrigation system installed, according to general manager Jason Haas. He says in those blocks, “Getting into harvest season in the drought years, it looked like there was no drought at all.”
A grower can’t just one day decide to up and dry farm. “It requires thinking [in advance] about how to get vines to generate a deep root system,” says Haas; as vineyard parcels come to the end of their lives, though, they can be replaced. Dry farming also isn’t right if soils and rainfall aren’t a match.
But Haas, Runsten, and Gliessman all think more vineyards could adopt the practice. In Mendocino County, says Runsten, many wineries irrigate their vines, “and I can’t understand why. They’re next to the Russian River and get plenty of rain.” He blames convention—the idea that “this is the way things are done”—and the risk-averse nature of vineyard consultants.
“As you go farther north and closer to the coast, dry farming becomes more viable,” says Haas. Some winemakers argue that it could even work for all of landlocked Napa, where the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently that climate-slammed vineyards are scrambling to try out heat-hardy varietals.
Spreading the Dry-Farming Gospel
Tablas Creek and other vineyards have hosted seminars presented by CAFF to offer up research and help viticulturists think about adjusting the way they grow grapes. Runsten says there’s been a general pooh-poohing of some of CAFF’s projected climate models. On the flip side, Haas sees grower interest in dry farming increasing. “All over, there are people who are terrified” about the shifting climate, he says; to prepare, many of them are willing to try something new to them.
Two years into his dry-farming experiment, Jonata’s Dees is not a card-carrying convert. “There are people who are taking up the dry-farming torch and saying the old vines are the ideal, but it’s not black and white to me,” he says. He thinks an “integrated” approach that reduces reliance on irrigation but also increases soil health, might be more viable for a lot of vineyards. California’s Healthy Soils Program makes grants to wine grape growers for just that latter purpose.
Still, watching the young vines in his experimental block dig deep to find water has been eye opening, he says, and perhaps indicates that they’re stronger than he gave them credit for. There’s also “a feeling you get sometimes in vineyards, and this feels really good.”
CAFF received grant money from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to run seminars a few years ago and continues to conduct them when it can. DWR funds other water-use efficiency programs for vineyards, although they are mostly focused on irrigation systems, according to information shared by the department.
The CSWA supports water use reduction goals, too, including improved irrigation systems and monitoring with technology such as drones; encouraging best practices such as cover crop management; and third-party sustainability certification that includes a water component. The Alliance partnered with CAFF to produce some dry-farming case studies, says CSWA’s Jordan, who believes, too, that dry farming could expand in California. “In places where it’s appropriate, I think additional education will help increase rates” of adoption, she says.
But even beyond the focus of dry farming, Dees says, “Grumpy old farmers are getting together to talk about [sustainability]. That says a ton.”
In Contra Costa County, efforts to preserve the old vineyards continue. Cline’s Tsegeletos says that the city of Oakley seems genuinely interested in trying to keep them around, offering some rent-free acres. But should development amp up throughout the county, Gliessman says there will be repercussions, and not just for the vineyards. Swimming pools and lawns use a lot of groundwater; pavement “affects the capacity of systems to take in water, get it into the soil system, and help maintain groundwater—it all runs off instead.” Whoever’s left behind to use that water, they’ll have less of it.
Beyond that, Gliessman sees something urgent yet less visible at stake. “Taking the place of these small operations are large-scale industrial [ones],” he said. “What we’re losing are people who live on the land, work it, know it and its history, and are committed to sustainability. And that is what the future of agriculture should be.”