Grounded Grapegrowingby Glenn McGourty
California’s climate has certainly changed perceptibly in the past decade, as drought and increased temperatures year-round have affected winegrowing in the state. Besides potential stress to grapevines, another serious consequence is the increased risk of forest and brush fires. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of forest and brush fires for the West Coast. This may eventually cause massive changes to our landscape in terms of types of trees and shrubs that grow. The potential for devastating fires is a grave concern to all living things in or near wilderness areas.
In the past four drought years, significant forest and brush fires erupted virtually every month of the year. We no longer have a fire season—rural areas have to be prepared for fire any month when conditions are dry and there is combustible fuel on the ground. During the 2015 growing season, the entire Pacific Coast was affected by serious drought. Forest fires near winegrowing regions in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia had the potential to impart wildfire smoke flavors to wine. This past fall, the Valley Fire burned more than 76,000 acres of Ponderosa pine and associated vegetation in Lake County, Calif.—primarily on Cobb Mountain down to Middletown, and back up Highway 29 to Hidden Valley. Thousands of structures were destroyed and hundreds of families displaced. It has been ranked the fifth most expensive fire in California history. The Valley Fire followed two other large blazes in the county earlier in the year. Fortunately, most of the smoke blew away from vineyards in the region (the Lake County Winegrape Growers estimate planted vineyards to cover 8,380 acres).
Considering some of the horrific conflagrations that occurred, the impact on winemaking across the vast region was surprisingly limited. In most cases, winemakers had the tools and techniques to address potential problems. Few vineyards were left with unpicked fruit and, fortunately, many of the vineyards that weren’t picked were insured to cover losses from fire and smoke. Considering the vast areas burned, the impact on wine was very small for the West Coast.The owners of a vineyard in Calaveras County, Calif., discovered scorched fruit when they returned to their property after the Butte Fire of 2015.
Damage to the vinesREAD MORE
November 2015As a long-term strategy, winegrowers should be planning to use less water to grow fruit.
As we finish our fourth year in California with below normal rainfall, having enough water for irrigation remains a critical issue in many vineyards around the state. Surface water has been in short supply in many areas, as many irrigation districts do not have enough water to honor customers’ allotments. If growers have the option, they are relying on groundwater to replace scarce surface water. This has resulted in lowered water table levels and, in some cases, dry wells.
The California State Department of Water Resources has identified groundwater basins that are either “high” or “medium” priority basins that will require water elevation monitoring. Believing that the best solutions will probably be based on local knowledge, the state is asking land owners or local agencies in these basins to develop groundwater sustainability plans that will monitor well levels and also come up with ways to reverse the declining water tables. It is clear that water use for all of California will be much more closely monitored than in the past.READ MORE
The 2014-15 water year may be a turning point in California water policy if present weather trends continue. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has classified most of the state as being in “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought.” During the past five months, a persistent high-pressure ridge above the North Pacific (known by many in the media as “the blob”) has resulted in extreme record warmth ranging from 2° to 8° F above normal in the west. These conditions have resulted in the lowest snow packs on record for California—only 5% of normal. Much of the Pacific Northwest is experiencing the same conditions. According to a recent survey by the Farm Water Coalition, 41% of farmland in California using surface water will have 80% less of its usual supply this year due to drought impacts. Groundwater, if available, will have to make up the difference if growers want to continue farming their orchards, vineyards and fields this year.READ MORE
Vineyard row middles are often covered with living vegetation at least part of the year, usually during the winter. Growers may plant row middles with cover crops or allow weeds and other self-seeding plants to grow, generating living material (biomass). In the past I have written about cover crops and the numerous benefits this plant material brings for vineyard soil health, chemical and physical properties. Growing live vegetation in row middles can make huge differences for soil water storage, soil fertility and vine performance. In this part of the vineyard floor, it is fairly easy to control unwanted vegetation (weeds) by mowing, tilling and occasionally spraying herbicides (not needed in most cases.)
California and the other Pacific Coast states are facing an unprecedented drought. In California, calendar year 2013 was the driest year on record. Many large reservoirs and ponds are very low, and numerous water providers are curtailing water deliveries to their customers. The period from Nov. 13, 2013, to Jan. 31, 2014, were the driest winter months on record since weather records have been kept in California. Even though some storms have occurred since then, continued dryness and limited frost protection and irrigation water are likely to be issues for the 2014 growing season.READ MORE
January 2014Farming in California is becoming increasingly complicated as growers in our populous state are held responsible for the wellbeing of public trust resources that are on their property: air, water, fish and wildlife. Agriculture is estimated to use 80%-85% of the available water in our state to irrigate about 10 million acres of farmland.
May 2013Stretching from Monterey Bay to Santa Barbara County, the Central Coast of California is an agricultural cornucopia of produce ranging from artichokes to zucchini in the vegetable business. Wine grapes are also extremely important, with more than 95,000 acres producing 517,547 tons in 2012, according to the CDFA California Grape Crush Final Report.READ MORE
November 2012The tide has turned. Fruit is in short supply, bulk wine supplies are low and once again vineyards are being planted in California. As every new generation of vineyard is planted, hopefully there is a corresponding increase in quality as past planting mistakes are addressed and new ones are avoided. In this two-part series I will discuss some of the most recent vineyard developments, which will hopefully result in productive vineyards with the potential for quality fruit and long lives.READ MORE
September 2012Canopy management is an essential part of growing high-quality winegrapes. Many of the practices are expensive, require careful timing and also may prevent disease, improve fruit color and ultimately make better wine. This past spring I attended two industry seminars about canopy management with very new and updated information.READ MORE
June 2012Predicting grapevine yield is something everyone would like to understand better. Vineyards average between 15% and 30% difference in yields from year to year. With such variability and uncertainty, it is difficult some years to forecast wine inventories and cash flow for the entire supply chain from grower to retailer. Understanding how these yield variations occur is an important part of farming winegrapes.READ MORE
April 2012As California’s vineyard industry grows and matures, we will begin to see what happens when you grow the same crop in the same place over time. Growers in Europe have considerable experience with this topic, since some vineyards have occupied the same space since the age of the Roman Empire and before. There are strategies that can be used to lessen potential problems. In this column I will discuss what I consider to be the most worrisome vine health issues and what you can do to avoid, address or control the maladies that can visit and blight your plantings.READ MORE
February 2012The recent publication of the “Organic Winegrowing Manual” (see story here) reminds me how the path unfolded to develop this different farming system used by growers who have now certified more than 11,000 organic acres under the USDA’s National Organic Program. What was strikingly different from other emerging farming technologies was that information transfer was truly farmer to farmer.READ MORE
December 2011With a sigh of relief, most of us are enjoying the end of another harvest following the challenges of a late start, untimely rain and all the other issues that make winegrowing both fun and frustrating. It is time to reflect, pay the bills, put away the tools, clean up the debris and catch our breath before we get out our pruning shears and another season begins. We should find a moment to celebrate, too, and reflect on all that makes winegrowing possible. What most of us don’t think about very much is the miraculous substance beneath our vines and our feet: the soil.READ MORE
October 2011Leafroll virus has been an ongoing problem in the vineyard industry for many years. Recently, there has been heightened awareness as some new vineyards planted to certified virus-free nursery stock began to show leafroll symptoms a few years after planting. In most cases, these vineyards are planted adjacent to older vineyards that are showing leafroll symptoms. Previously, it was believed by many people that the main method of virus transmission was by propagating vines from infected wood and that, at least in California, insect transmission was not that significant. But closer studies are changing what was once seen as common knowledge.READ MORE
August 2011In my most recent column (“Vineyard Irrigation Strategies,” Wines & Vines, June 2011 issue) I presented the concept of regulated deficit irrigation (RDI), an irrigation strategy in which less water is applied than the full potential vine water use. Water deficits at specific times can be used to positively influence vine growth. Unlike many other fruit crops, the object of winegrowing is not simply to maximize yields. Wineries want to purchase the best possible fruit that they can obtain for a fair price.READ MORE
June 2011Nature has blessed California with abundant rain this year, and this will be very helpful for most vineyards. After several years of very dry weather in some areas, the rain is providing plenty of water in the root zone. (In my own vineyard planted along the Russian River, the water table was one foot below the surface at bud break!) In areas dependent on irrigation for most of the vines’ water needs, the rain will provide much-needed leaching of salts that may have accumulated from less-than-ideal water quality (the Central Coast comes to mind, as many irrigation wells have high amounts of dissolved minerals). The rains also will recharge depleted aquifers, fill irrigation ponds and provide our fields, forests and chapparal with a blush of healthy growth across the state. Snow packs in the Sierra are at near-record levels (more than 50 feet of snow has fallen in many areas), a delight to skiers and a promise of almost-normal water delivery to many irrigation projects serving growers in the interior valleys.READ MORE
April 2011I am constantly amazed by the wonderful transition winegrowers experience between November and April. This rings especially true in the months since November 2010, when the harvest dragged on and on. Rain, late picking and numerous minor disasters ranging from mold to stuck tractors resulted in frayed nerves and tempers. As the cold, wet weather of late 2010 gave way to some lovely sunshine during January and February, everyone seemed to regain energy and optimism. Now they’re ready to take on a new grapegrowing year.READ MORE
February 2011Greece inspires me on many levels. For my first visit there I arrived by boat, departing from Bari in Italy at night. We drifted in and out of the mist of an awesome dawn, as large puffy clouds reflected pink and golden light from the rising sun over the deep blue Adriatic Sea. I expected Triton to rise at any moment out of the water—or at least to hear some beautiful sirens singing from the rocky coast.READ MORE
December 2010Portugal continues to be one of my favorite wine regions to visit for many reasons. First, the landscape is diverse and interesting, as are the vineyards and the many native varieties growing there. Second, the wines are very different from the rest of the world, ranging from the very acidic, greenish Vinho Verde of Northern Portugal’s cool and rainy Atlantic Coast (made from Alvarinho, a synonym for the Spanish variety Albariño), to the rich, velvety sweet ports of the Douro Valley, to the fizzy rosé wines produced near Lisbon in the southwest, to the very ripe and full-bodied wines of the Alentejo region of the south east. For the most part, the winegrowing regions of Portugal are warm and sunny, similar to California. Third, the Portuguese are very hospitable, open and friendly people who enjoy the company of others and have an interest in people outside of their region.READ MORE
October 2010Climatically, Spain is quite similar to California. Even the landscape looks alike. During the summer, cork oaks with dark green foliage dot the landscape, and the grasses become dry. A combination of very drought-tolerant, low-growing shrubs and trees known as maquis cover many of the steep hillsides. Sun-loving tourists fill coastal towns, where the streets are planted to palms, silk oaks and eucalyptus. Brightly flowering bougainvillea and scarlet trumpet vines cover many walls. The interior portions of Spain are comparatively hot and dry. While irrigation is allowed in some regions, dry-land farming is normal in others. Vines must be very tough to grow under those conditions.READ MORE
August 2010Our model for quality wine was developed in part by the claret-swilling British, and this bias still dominates the “international variety” marketplace for wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. There’s no question that very fine wines can be made from these varieties, and the California wine industry is deep in this game.READ MORE
Certain winegrape varieties are by nature very aromatic and fruity in their flavor composition. Riesling, Gewürztraminer, various Muscats, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier come immediately to mind. Others are not so well known in North America, but they certainly are interesting to the open-minded wine drinker with adventurous tastes. These include Albariño (from Galicia in Spain), Torrontes (also known as Torontel, from Argentina and Chile), Malvasia (Italy), Tocai Friulano (Italy), Aleatico (a red variety from Italy) and Moscophilero (Greece).READ MORE
April 2010The Sangiovese winegrape is a variety much admired and revered in Italy, where today it covers more than 11% of all vineyard area. Sangiovese represents 12% of Italian DOC and DOCG wines (the two highest categories of the Italian appellation system) and is included in the blend of 388 appellation-based wines. Although it’s planted in many parts of Italy, Tuscany remains the epicenter for high-quality Sangiovese, which is the main ingredient of all Chianti wines.READ MORE
February 2010California is in some respects reaching the limits of its water resources. The various stakeholders that need water are now starting to actively compete for this important “public trust resource.” Essentially, the state of California owns and controls the use of all surface water -- and, in some instances, groundwater as well. Because there are fish in the streams and rivers -- including endangered species of salmon and their threatened cousin, the steelhead trout -- California Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service also have something to say about how and when water is diverted to ensure the health of fisheries.READ MORE
Definitions of weeds include “a plant out of place” or “a plant we haven’t figured out the value of.” These definitions are in some cases too kind, and doubtlessly the work of phyto-apologists. From my anthropomorphic perspective, some weeds are crafty, cunning and downright spiteful—not to mention potentially injurious (poison oak and Himalayan blackberry come to mind.)READ MORE
October 2009During two conferences this summer, I made presentations on cover cropping, and for the most part, my information was graciously received. There was one exception -- an organic grower from Napa who informed me that my approach was totally wrong and probably harmful! He manages several hundred acres organically and dry farms the vineyards as well. (He was very respectful in presenting his opinion, I might add.) From a dry land vineyard perspective, he was correct that my suggestion of using no-till cover cropping would not be a good choice.Mustards such as Brassica campestris (above) are some of the most popular cover crop choices for grapegrowers using dry farming methods.READ MORE
August 2009As I write this column, I am looking out the window of my house above the Russian River, near Hopland, at retreating fog that has been cloaking Spanish Peak and Red Mountain in cool grayness--unusual for this time of the year (mid-June).READ MORE