California might be having its worst drought in more than a century. But it's too early to tell what the effects could be on the state's wine industry.
What we do know is, conditions are already dire in some wine growing regions. Parts of Mendocino County are running out of drinking water, while Paso Robles has passed an ordinance banning planting of new crops that need irrigation.
"Our region is the driest it's been in 120 years," said Brad Sherwood, public affairs manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency. "We've experienced two fairly dry years, and then last year was the driest on record."
The lack of rainfall is statewide, and California governor Jerry Brown, who met with a drought task force on Thursday, is expected to soon issue a drought emergency declaration.
This by itself is not unusual. The state has had 13 drought emergency proclamations since 1987, three of them statewide, according to Nancy Vogel from the California Department of Water Resources.
But farmers say this year's drought is the worst in living memory.
"I've been growing grapes for 20 years, and we haven't seen anything like this," said Lake County vineyard owner and manager David Weiss. "If we don't get significant rainfall between now and bud break, the vines are going to suffer."
That's a very big "if." One of the reasons California is such a successful wine region is the timing of its annual rainfall. Most rain falls between November and March, with the heaviest rains in January and February, while the vines are dormant.
While January has been very dry so far, it's still possible for Mother Nature to send some pre-summer showers. Heavy showers in March 2012 were called the "March miracle," rescuing what had been a dry winter. However the dry winter had followed two relatively wet years. This time, even a few heavy rains won't be enough to refill dangerously low reservoirs.
"Lake Pillsbury (in Lake County) is a mud puddle. Clear Lake is down to about a half a foot above zero," said Jeff Lyon, who manages vineyards statewide.
Lyon explained that the area with the greatest concerns if rains don't come is the one that makes the bulk of California wines: the San Joaquin Valley. Most of the water there comes from federal and state sources, he noted, and the federal water managers have been talking about only releasing about 5 percent of what they normally sell.
"They're going to be in crisis mode in the Central Valley, if we don't get rain," Lyon told Wine-Searcher. "But this may be a moot conversation in two weeks, who knows."
One of the fine-wine areas most affected is Anderson Valley, which – though it's in Mendocino County – is served by the Sonoma County Water Agency. America's new thirst for Pinot Noir has driven Anderson Valley vineyard acreage to more than five times what it was 20 years ago, and the overwhelming majority are irrigated. But the main reservoir for the area, Lake Mendocino, is at 37 percent capacity and dropping.
"The majority of the wineries and vineyards collect rainwater," said Kristy Charles, president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association. "Having not had any rain in a month and a half, it's definitely a concern. People are talking about putting off pruning. People are upping their crop insurance."
What's more, growers who normally use cover crop in the winter – an increasingly popular environmentally-friendly practice – have an additional worry.
"There's very little cover crop growing," revealed Lyon. "Things are just brown and dry. If your land was not tilled after harvest, it will have no impact. However, if you tilled your land, normally you'd have erosion protection from the roots of the cover crop. Now, there's a lot of bare land out there. It has put us at more risk of erosion."
Lyon pointed out that the rainy season is only about half over, and he plans to stay optimistic. And while Governor Brown told the media that "governors can't make it rain," some grape growers are taking steps – literally.
"I heard talk on Facebook about rain dancing," Charles says.