Dry wine: How does the California drought affect the wine industry?

jason_haasThe rain in California falls mostly in the winter. I think that’s how it went in Pygmalion. At any rate, the rain has decidedly NOT been falling this off-season for the vines. While that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for California’s wine industry–some older vines have deep roots–it does mean less water to go around and and a descent into the politics of water scarcity. New vines and a lot of older vines in the Golden State rely on drip irrigation–it will be interesting if “dry farming,” which some claim produces wines that are more expressive of their terroirs then irrigated vines, catches on this season out of necessity. Also affected are increasingly popular “cover crops,” the nitrogen-rich plants that some vineyard managers sow between the vines to plow under and provide natural fertilization for the soil.

Jason Haas (right), of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, one of the hardest hit areas in the state, told Bloomberg News that competition from overseas will limit how much California producers can pass drought costs on to consumers. Aquifers and wells may cover some of the shortfall, but, again, welcome to water politics, perhaps a dominant theme for this century in much of the country.

California produces 89% of American wine. The San Joaquin Valley alone cranks out 60%. The Central Valley also produces many of the country’s fruit, nuts and vegetables–America’s salad bowl, if you will, rather than its breadbasket. Mather Jones has a terrific infographic on how the California drought could affect you no matter where you live. (Btw, since it takes about 600 to 800 grapes to make a bottle of wine, they therefore claim it takes 180 – 240 gallons of water to make a bottle of wine. Vintners, winemakers: does that strike you as an exaggeration?)

On a somewhat optimistic note, rain is on the way. Randall Grahm, who makes his Bonny Doon wines on and around California’s central coast, tweeted today: “The fact that rain (and lots of it) is forecast for later this week is the best thing I’ve read in forever. #betterthan95ptsfromparker”


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8 Responses to “Dry wine: How does the California drought affect the wine industry?”

  1. Sad for consumers but the central valley agro-businesses have been getting insanely cheap, plentiful water for a long time – perhaps too long. I for one am looking forward to seeing growers do more with less.

  2. Tyler, the water needs per bottle were definitely overstated. It’s more like 200 gallons of irrigation water per gallon of wine in much of California, not per bottle. So 40 gallons per bottle. Per our viticulture columnist Cliff Ohmart

  3. @Rick – well, they will have less (one of those links said a massive amount of water from a federally controlled system). It will be interesting to see the ripple effects.

    @Jim – thanks for chiming in. That’s certainly a lower figure, but, wow, 40 gallons in 750 ml? At that rate, they still might not have had much to drink at the Marriage at Cana.

  4. […] Dry wine: How does the California drought affect the wine industry? […]

  5. There needs to be a much more nuanced discussion of the water topic as it relates to California wines.

    Fine wines generally come from coastal regions and the data I have seen in the past puts their water consumption levels at 1/16th as much as Central Valley wine (the desert region, basically). I suggest contacting a water expert at U.C. Davis before printing unverified data.

    It’s not necessary for everyone to dry farm to be prudent users of water. Although we do like the people who do dry farm.

    Paso Robles is not one of the hardest hit areas because of the drought, but because of the rapid rise of the wine industry in a such a concentrated area, and because the rapid use of aquifer water is lowering aquifer levels and forcing residents to dig deeper wells – which is costly for people who aren’t even in the wine business.

    The biggest water issues typically are in the Central Valley where, strangely enough, rice is grown (in a desert region). It is possible that California ag policy might become somewhat more rationale about which crops get cheap water.

    Almonds and grapes are the biggest cash crops so they are often not going to be cutback on although, to be real, almonds are almost all exported around the world.

    Central Valley farmers are not known for using best practices in water use (i.e. modern irrigation equipment) despite industry led attempts to improve the situation.

  6. […] Dry wine: How does the California drought affect the wine industry? […]

  7. I might be a little biased but this is a perfect time to turn to Virginia wine.

  8. I’m happy that the state just received some much needed water. Grapes thrive on the struggle. Hopefully growers and makers will do more with less water and create some very unique wines with this vintage. I think California wine makers will be up to the challenge.


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