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Mendocino Winegrowers Weigh Drought Options

Supervisors declare local emergency; growers expect smaller crop

by Jane Firstenfeld
mendocino drought water
Like the rest of California, Mendocino County is desperately in need of water.
Ukiah, Calif.—With its major reservoir water level at a crusty 37% of normal capacity, and most flow from that reservoir diverted to neighboring Sonoma County and the Russian River, Mendocino County Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring “a local emergency and imminent threat of disaster…due to drought conditions.”

Resolution No. 14 (read it here) cited unprecedentedly low levels in Lake Mendocino, Ukiah Valley vintners’ and farmers’ reliance on the lake as their “one and only source of water” and effects of the second parched year.

Ironically, Mendocino is not one of the 27 California counties listed by the USDA as disaster areas because of the drought. Neither are Napa or Sonoma counties, although a report from the Sonoma County Water Agency issued on Dec. 15 called 2013 the driest year on record in 120 years.

This is hardly the first time Mendocino and Sonoma have fought for water on behalf of agriculture, the environment and the public at large. In 2009, the issue also came to the fore, creating problems for vineyards and necessitating inventive solutions from wineries.

Although forecasters currently predict a scant chance of “showers” later this week north of San Francisco, and any amount of precipitation will be welcome, what’s needed are some steady rains—not gully washing deluge—to refill reservoirs, aquifers, wells and ponds.

Reason to fear
Without that, said Ryan McAllister, “The local take is: We’re scared, real scared.” McAllister tends some 65 acres of wine grapes in the Anderson Valley for 2,500-case Knez Vineyard & Winery

It’s not only dry, it’s bizarrely warm. “Outside of less water, the drought will compound itself,” McAllister said. He reported single-digit nighttime humidity, with temperatures around 30°-40° F.

“We haven’t seen any (growth) movement from the vines yet,” and with mostly ridge-top vineyards, “Luckily we don’t have to do much frost protection.”

Knez has just starting pruning now and is planning to prune 25% heavier than normally, McAllister said. In this second arid year, Knez is starting to plan for limited crops. “We’re going to see how much rain we have in February and March,” he said hopefully.

“We do a ton of handwork in the vineyard. With drought, it’s more imperative to be early with canopy management. We’ll pull excess shoots and leaves as soon as possible. We will run the risk of sunburn in some areas, and in some we will have to leave more leaves,” he said.

McAllister’s normal ideal is to begin basal shoot and initial lateral work in the beginning of June. “This year, it may be earlier on the morning side of the vines, leaving the afternoon side for sun protection,” he said. “When you do it early, the vines can protect themselves more from the sun.” In some situations, he acknowledged, denuding vines too much can cause sunburn—especially in sensitive Pinot Noir.

Knez has well-fed ponds capable of storing up to two years’ worth of water, but failing rain: “We’ll be drier, more water conscious and practicing limited irrigation. The upside is that we could end up with higher quality fruit,” although in more limited quantities, McAllister told Wines & Vines.

2013 a ‘great year’
Alex MacGregor of 5,500-case Saracina Vineyards in Hopland, tends 180 acres further inland. Hopland vineyards received “substantial rains” in spring 2013, he said, but not enough to achieve normal levels. “Everyone is obviously concerned.”

“It’s hard to measure—2013 was a great year for Mendocino County,” he said. “This year all bets are off.” The normal January/December rains never arrived, but, he said, “We normally get precipitation in February through May.”

Like McAllister, he said, “People are altering pruning and leaving longer canes. If we don’t get rain, we’ll have to decide between frost protection and irrigation. We might get renewal buds.”

In its long history of wine grape growing, Hopland has experienced hardships of every kind. MacGregor praised his neighbors and fellow members of Mendocino Wine Country. Many are multi-generational grapegrowers: “A lot of people are sharing their experiences and strategies from the drought of 1976-77.”

For MacGregor, spraying to prevent frost damage is a “luxury” he rarely taps. “We are conscious, even in years of abundant water,” he said. “We have two reservoirs, fed by springs and seasonal runoff. But nobody is doing great.”

If there is an upside to the drought, he said, it’s the “unprecedented level of cooperation among the vineyards and the wineries.”

Paul Dolan’s view
For decades, Paul Dolan has internationally promoted sustainability and pressed a green agenda from his Mendocino County base. The former president of 2.7 million-case Fetzer Vineyards (it’s now owned by Chilean wine company Concha & Toro); author of “True to Our Roots,” a memoir and roadmap to sustainable winemaking; a believer in and promoter of Biodynamic practices and an architect of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) has been less visible on the circuit, keeping busy with his family vineyards in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, and as a board member of the 209,000-case Truett Hurst in Sonoma County, subject of Wines & Vines’ January packaging feature. The Dolan family recently put more than 200 acres of its Dark Horse and Gobbi Street Ukiah Valley vineyards into a land trust, to preserve them in agriculture for perpetuity, the first such land trust in Mendocino County.

In a conversation with Wines & Vines, Dolan addressed the current situation in Mendocino. “Over the last three or four years, a lot of off-stream ponds have been put in,” a sustainable alternative to pumping out of the rivers.

“It’s been good: Growers are filling ponds. I just drove by a couple: One being filled, one is filled. One neighbor just drilled a well that went down a couple hundred feet,” deeper than traditionally needed to reach water, he said.

He, too, cited the success of Mendocino’s long winegrowing tradition: “A lot of growers have planted on drought-tolerant rootstock. My experience is that 110R and 1103 Paulsen/St. George are great rootstock: hearty, nothing wrong with it. (Some) vines on that are 100 year old.”

During the 1976-77 California drought, “I was a young winemaker: 1977 was a great vintage.” This year, he acknowledged, “The downside for farmers could be not much harvest.”

In his vineyards, “We’ll reduce crops about 20%-25%. We don’t want to overstress the vines. We’ll use old dry farming techniques, build a mulch layer. Old farmers used to cross cultivate vineyards, working them up with a mulch-like, sluffy layer using a disc to turn the soil.”

Dolan’s working to help recharge the soil. “We use dry farming: Hoe-plowing, where the plow goes underneath the vines, pulls soil and roots away from the vine. You don’t want roots high up: Keep a larger percentage of roots down deep.

“The question is: How much water is in the soil profile? Water will be deeper down: I’ve tried to create deeper roots. If the vine organizes itself, the roots will go deeper. We only use 10-20 gallons per year per vine. Some growers use 150 gallons.”

Dolan recommended that growers purchase crop insurance, which can cover 50%-85% of losses from any agricultural disaster, including smoke damage or excessive rain.

He firmly believes that climate change is the result of human impact. “We’re the only country that has not acknowledged that,” he said. Maybe we cannot alter the trajectory, but humans can adapt and deal with the changes, grapegrowers by creating ponds, developing deeper roots, adopting shading practices inside the canopy, he said. He is also looking at different, more drought-tolerant grape varieties, this year planting Grenache.

Planting a future
“We have to be prepared,” Dolan said, expressing the universal hope that the drought will end this year. “Another will make it problematic. Berries will be smaller, the amount of juice will be smaller.”

Although McAlllister does not anticipate any replanting this year, he agreed it could be a smart strategy, for various reasons. “Maybe we should look into that. We have these monocultures,” which become vulnerable to specific environmental threats.

“Last year we took the opportunity to graft over an area and reduce overall water use.” Knez grafted over some heavy-producing old Pinot Noir vines in valley vineyards to Chardonnay, McAllister said.

Saracina is owned by John Fetzer, a scion of the large, influential family; its vineyards include the original Fetzer Sundial. MacGregor said “We’ve pulled a few blocks at the apogee of production: Chardonnay, primarily. We want to be sustainable.”

The Fetzer clan understands the perils of monoculture, and its many members have long-promoted biodiversity. Saracina’s acreage includes bees, olive trees, pomegranates and drought-tolerant herbs and cover crops,” MacGregor said.

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