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Monterey County wine-grape growers pray for rain – next year, at least.

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 12:00 am

Monterey County wine growers aren’t worried about the drought for this season’s crop – grapevines are weedy, drought-resistant plants – but they are praying for rain next year, or some of the 2015 fruit might have to die on the vine.

The bigger concern now is weather. It’s been so unseasonably warm this winter crops are beginning to bud out a month or two early, which could leave fruit susceptible to damage if a rough storm passes through before summer.

But growers can only worry about what they control, and in an increasingly arid California, efficient watering and moisture retention strategies top the list. At De Tierra Vineyards in Corral de Tierra, head of sales and marketing Anna Russell walks me through the winery’s Russell Estate vineyard, where lush ground cover grows a few feet high between the rows, belying the winter’s sparse rainfall. “[The groundcover] can usually can get up to about five feet tall” in a normal water year, Russell says.

The cover serves two key purposes: it fixes nitrogen in the soil and greatly increases water retention, which one can find a few inches beneath the soil’s tilled crust. Cover is cultivated at the end of every harvest – which on this field occurred last November – and at De Tierra it’s done by tilling the soil with chicken feather meal and a mix of seeds.Rainfall does the rest.

Russell then reaches down to the irrigation line strung along every row about a foot off the ground, with an emitter placed above every vine. “It’s as close to dry-farming as possible, but we do irrigate,” she says, adding that each emitter is checked before and throughout the season to prevent leaks and wastage. “We’re constantly monitoring our drip so when we do use water we’re using it in the most sustainable way possible.”

“IT’S AS CLOSE TO DRY-FARMING AS POSSIBLE, BUT WE DO IRRIGATE.”

Sabrine Rodems, winemaker at Wrath, concurs. “We can actually put the water where it needs to go, really regulate it,” she says. “And when the plants get bigger, you don’t really need to irrigate at all.” (Grapevine roots can dig extremely deep in search of water; as they get older they become increasingly drought-resistant.)

But Steve McIntyre, president of sustainable winegrowing alliance Monterey Pacific Inc., says pure dry-farming – using no water at all – isn’t really a viable option locally. “Here, you’re gonna apply some water,” he says. “If you don’t, you’re going to reduce your yields and make it harder to be economically sustainable.”

And while stress can be important for building a wine’s character, timing matters. “You do want to [use water to] manipulate grapevines to make better wine,” McIntyre says. He adds some European winegrowers – whose wet winters allow them to dry-farm – have begun experimenting with drip due to the changing climate.

As far our changing climate, McIntyre hopes next year brings reprieve. “We’re extremely fortunate that we have two reservoirs we use to charge our groundwater system, and we’re heading into this year with a fully-charged aquifer,” he says. “The downside is our reservoirs are empty. Next year, if this continues, we’ll have to decide which blocks to keep irrigating.”

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