…And Now for the Water
By: George Balling
We answered many of your recent questions last week. We continue to receive many more about the drought that continues to plague much of the West especially California. It is a larger subject with many facets and substantial geographic twists and turns so we decided we would address it in a separate column. While it affects grape growers, it is by no means the greatest impact, as we mentioned last week fires around wine country have far more reaching implications with the damage from smoke, and some of the worst fire years have been in years with ample winter rains.
Much of the West and specifically California have had drought on and off for most of the recent vintages. In most of those years though there was enough winter precipitation to fill reservoirs and provide enough waters to vineyards. In talking to grape growers, they have said in most of the recent dry years that there was still enough perfectly timed rains and mountain snows to carry “wine country”.
Another major factor in allowing the wine industry to keep going in an arid Mediterranean climate like California is winemaker and grape grower experience. This is not their first collective go at farming world class grapes in a climate where rain is virtually unseen for 6 or more months out of any given year. Winemakers and grape growers alike are by their nature great at conserving water and outstanding stewards of the environment. They simply have to be, it is their lives and livings. So even in dry years they know how to cope.
The winter of 2020/2021 for the appellations of the Northwest was by all estimates a decent season for rain and mountain snow. While we have been dry since an early and warm spring broke there was enough precipitation in the high country to provide grape growers with what they needed. Clearly the last several weeks have been warm and too dry however this arrives at a time when most irrigation is being cut back. The outlook for the grape crop here in the Northwest therefore is quite good. Much of the year is still to come but the lack of spring water should not have a negative impact.
Sadly, for most of California it is quite a different story. Up and down the “Golden State” winter precipitation was at best sparse. In many of the urban areas severe water restrictions are already in place. All farmers from wine country through the Central Valley have had their water allocations dialed back. While this is more impactful for non-grape farmers the effects will be felt by all.
It remains to be seen if this will affect the quality of the wine grape crop. However, the most recent year I can compare precipitation levels to is 2014. In’14 like this year the precipitation over the winter was very light. It resulted in one of the oddest vintages I can recall. Wines from 2014 from most of California were completely “bar belled”. There were many great wines made this year, and yet there were others that were simply bad. Crop size was also way down so it was a very light vintage by traditional tonnage standards.
In talking to friends in Northern California they are finding that bundle size and consistency is shaping up similarly to 2014 this year. With the vines having less water to draw on from winter reserves many are finding grape bundles to be small and compact, not only smaller clusters but smaller berries too.
Like here in the Northwest the lion’s share of the growing season is still in front of us. While there is virtually no chance of additional rains prior to harvest moderate temperatures and a light fire season would work wonders for an industry ravaged by last year’s early and persistent fires. This is perhaps the most interesting part of a 2014 versus 2021 comparison. 2014 Was following the outstanding years of 2012 and 2013, two of the best back-to-back vintages California has ever experienced. So, when the wines from 2014 landed they underwhelming in many cases.
In 2021 though, we have the back drop of the severe fire season of 2020 when virtually no red wine was produced! The damage was so severe last year and wines so minimal that any improvement in 2021 will likely be met with glowing reviews, huge sighs of relief, and standing ovations from all in the wine business.
Rain in the grape growing regions of the Western US will not help now, in fact they would almost certainly be bad for the crop. The best thing for all farmers of world class wine grapes to hope for is a dry and smoke free summer, and then let’s fill the reservoirs next winter.