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Groundwater Helps Napa Vintners Weather Drought

Garrett Buckland at Baldacci Family Vineyards is looking at techniques to mitigate the drought
© W. Blake Gray | Garrett Buckland at Baldacci Family Vineyards is looking at techniques to mitigate the drought
California's worst drought in more than a century continues.

Many vintners in Napa Valley are sanguine about what could be a historic drought for California. In fact, the 2014 wines might even benefit.

Nobody was expecting a big crop anyway, after harvests in 2012 and 2013 that were both large and seemingly high quality. If the drought emergency of 2014 continues, there will certainly be smaller quantities of Napa Valley wine produced this year but they could be more intense.

Napa has had about 25 percent of its average rainfall since last June, said vineyard manager Garrett Buckland, and here in the middle of California's rainy season, Napa continues to have one warm, dry day after another.

But Napa has some large advantages over even successful regions like Sonoma, where the county water agency said last week the region is the driest it has been in 120 years.

For one thing, most of Napa Valley has groundwater under the soil, Buckland said, so the grapes don't have to rely on surface water, as is the case in many areas. "If I see a 10-foot drop in our water level, for most places, that's not a problem," Buckland said. The exception is Coombsville in southeast Napa Valley.

Perhaps more importantly, the goal of grapegrowers in Napa Valley is different from almost every other farmer in the world. In the San Joaquin Valley, growers of grapes (and everything else) want big plants with plenty of foliage to create big yields. In Napa, farmers trim the plants and drop half their crop because they want a small harvest of intensely concentrated grapes. Wet years are considered a problem, not dry years.

"We had drought in 1978 and '79, and those were great wines," said Elias Fernandez, a Napa Valley native who has been making wine at Shafer Vineyards for 25 years. "Our hillside vineyard is always in drought. We always have to give [the vines] water."

One of Trefethen's two reservoirs is empty
© Trefethen Family Vineyards | One of Trefethen's two reservoirs is empty

Some vintners in parched Sonoma and Mendocino County would say the same thing about some of their red wines. But here's where the money comes in.

Wealthy farmers have the advantage of planning ahead and spending on contingencies, and there's no crop in the state that brings in more added value than Napa Valley grapes. The money inflow really shows in drought preparations now that water in some rivers and creeks has stopped flowing.

At Trefethen Family Vineyards, the entire property is crisscrossed underground by a series of perforated pipes that collect excess water from the soil, which is then pumped to on-site reservoirs. Normally this means that the winery collects rainwater in January to give back to the vines in the dry summer months. But in a drought, there's another virtue: when Trefethen irrigates, any water not sucked up by thirsty vines goes back into the system and can be used to water again.

That said, of Trefethen's reservoirs – usually full this time of year – one is completely dry and the other is half empty. But company president Jon Ruel, also current president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, is trying to see a positive side to the problem.

"It's great that one of our reservoirs is empty, because we made repairs," Ruel said.

Many Napa grapegrowers have invested in such reservoirs, and wineries have also increasingly invested in water recycling systems.

Here's another example of how money mitigates a drought. At Baldacci Family Vineyards, Buckland had a crew shovel a scoop of organic compost directly under the irrigation emitter for each individual vine. Compost holds water more effectively than regular soil, so Baldacci's irrigation can use less water and be more effective. The individual-vine care took about 10 hours of labor per acre.

"We can afford this," Buckland said. "I feel for other areas of the state. We have the margins to take these steps. And we're lucky, we have a lot of smart growers."

Related story:

California Wine Threatened by Drought Crisis

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