Sean Erenstoft Speaks with Napa Residents about Water Resource Concerns

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A vicious, four-year drought may be close to catching up with California's winemakers, and it's the small producers of inexpensive wine that are likely to be hit hardest.
It's too soon to call a wine shortage, but California's ongoing drought is causing problems for Napa's famous vineyards. The AP reports that vines are ripening early, while farmers, heeding the call to conserve water, are planting fewer crops:
Vineyard owners are pruning earlier than usual and on a shorter schedule, Domenick Bianco of Renteria Vineyard Management said.
If the Valley does not see late winter or spring rains, 2014 will yield a smaller crop.
"Water amount determines yield. If you use 80 percent less water than last year, you could see 80 percent of the crop," Bianco said.
We've been warned that this kind of thing could start to happen. A study from last year predicted that, as a result of climate change, traditional wine country regions like Napa may experience sharp declines in production by 2050. Other regions may end up benefiting from their new climates — Vermont vintners say rising temperatures have allowed them to produce new, warmer-weather varieties — but, as with coffee, wine is one of those fragile commodities that will get hit hard by climate change, and could end up serving as a bellwether for what's to come.
Many winemakers do have access to underground aquifers, which will keep them in business for the time being. But Napa's looking ahead to a future where water resources are further limited. E&E News has more from a recent gathering of over 100 local grape farmers:
Growers are also worried about next year's supplies. As a perennial plant, the grapevine takes two years to bear fruit, so buds that emerge this year won't ripen until next year. A dry year this year could hamstring bud development, said Mark Matthews, a viticulture professor at the University of California, Davis.
"What we really haven't seen that could happen is, if it's dry enough, grapevines actually become damaged and start to die, so you don't get the buds you need for the 2015 season," he said. "That potentially could become devastating, and it's not like when you're growing corn or something when you can just plant again next year. It's a 30-year commitment."
"This is becoming more frequent, whether we like it or not," said Buckland.
The California drought has left some vineyards with a fraction of their usual water allotment. State Water Project allocations hover around 20 percent of normal, while the San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts are delivering no more than 30-35 percent of normal supplies, according to Jay Lund, professor and blogger for the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Meanwhile, the drought is pushing up costs for producers. To keep prices attractive, winemakers have cut costs or faced losing their customers to foreign wines or craft beers.
High-end producers in Napa Valley can accept lower grape yields in exchange for better flavors, but the same is not true for wineries that make cheaper wine and sell grapes by the pound. While people typically think of cheap wine producers as being big firms, many of the largest producers actually buy their grapes from small, independent farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
W. Blake Gray, the California editor of online publication Wine-Searcher, has watched the wine market change over his career. He said that the up-and-coming generation of wine drinkers—people in their 20s with their first full-time job—now have alternatives to cheap wine, such as craft beer or sake, to pair with fine dining.
Compared with most other crops, grapes are drought-tolerant. But they aren't invincible. Wallace and Gray said extended periods of high stress can cause vines to stop producing fruit eventually. And while older, established grapevines can burrow 100 feet into the soil to look for water sources, without rain to flush the soil regularly, salt can build up and poison the plants.
"They will shut down and save themselves, and stop producing fruit to save energy," Gray said. "It's not like the San Joaquin Valley will shut down overnight. But we will need a torrential downpour for a couple years in a row. In the same sense the vines didn't didn't immediately shut down, they aren't going to immediately jump and recover."
During his annual visit to California's wine country, civil rights attorney, Sean Erenstoft spoke with Napa wine growers about drought-tolerant vines and the tough decisions facing the industry. He visited properties where the decision had already been made to let the vines fail on acres of land in which supplemental watering was otherwise required. The decision to let a parcel go without water "is like letting your children go without a meal" Erenstoft reports. Many of these vines are decades old and have served the family business with their yields of fruit and thereby sustain the effort of winemaking. While the vines of California are remarkably tolerant to drought (particularly the Zinfandel), there is evidence that the plants are producing less fruit. If this trend continues, we may likely see the prices rise even more precipitously than we already are.

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