Can You Get Wine without Water?
Well, “no” is the simple answer. In most of California, you need drip irrigation or some other form of irrigation to supplement rainfall.
But with our historic drought in California, maybe the better question is “can you get wine with less water?” This question really matters if you love your California wines. If the drought continues, water is going to get more scarce and therefore more expensive, and that will mean either less wine or higher costs, or both.
One solution to this problem is “dry farming” grapes. This method basically relies solely on rainfall and soil moisture to sustain grape vines rather than irrigation. In some famous European wine making regions, including areas in Spain and France, dry farming is not only common but is actually required by law and tradition. Some of the old timers in these areas look on irrigation as kind of cheating, and they do make some very fine wines.
The basic idea of dry farming is that the vines have to develop very extensive root systems to gather water that has percolated deep into the soil. This practice requires spacing the vines far enough apart so the plants don’t have to compete with each other for limited water, and it depends on the soil type since some soils hold water better than others. Yields in dry farmed vineyards tend to be smaller and the fruit is less predictable. This method is not for lazy farmers!
In fact, there are some vineyards in California that have practiced dry farming for quite some time, and they don’t do it just to save water. They claim that they make higher quality wines this way, more reflective of the “terroir” (this idea is pretty abstract to me, that the wine reflects the character of the soil in the vineyard – it makes sense, but how do you taste it?). There are a number of dry-farmed vineyards in SLO, and a lot of interest in expanding the practice.
Obviously, dry farming can’t work where there is zero rainfall. Some experts peg the needed minimum rain at 20 inches per year, which is doable just about everywhere in San Luis Obispo County except in East Paso. You would still need to combine this with limited drip irrigation for the dry years, and try to build up the vines’ ability to tap into deeper water supplies over time. Our farmers are getting pretty creative about managing water.
So you don’t need to worry too much about whether there will be affordable wine in the future. But one reason for that is that vineyard managers are working on a number of tactics to get more grapes with less water. We all need to be thinking that way.
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