Aspen Times Weekly: Drought and wine |

Aspen Times Weekly: Drought and wine

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2014, file photo, morning traffic to heads downtown Los Angeles along the Hollywood Freeway past an electronic sign warning of severe drought. On Wednesday, April 1, 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the first mandatory, statewide water cutbacks by cities and towns as the state's nearly 40 million people head into a fourth summer of severe drought. Under the order the state can fine water agencies $10,000 a day if they fail to meet state targets for water conservation. The California Energy Commission will help oversee financial rewards for Californians who buy water-saving toilets and other appliances. And Brown's order mandates that water agencies look at changing rates to encourage saving water.(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)


Unfortunately you likely can’t get this wine unless you travel to the Ridge tasting rooms. But I did and I loved it. Dry farmed in Paso Robles, this vineyard was planted in 1923. The lush, dark flavors of fruit, earth and chocolate make this an outstanding example of a wine of place.

In February, I took a trip to visit the vineyards on California’s Central Coast. In the days before my arrival, a Pacific storm system had come ashore and dropped up to four inches of rainfall on the region. The hills surrounding Santa Barbara and adjacent valleys had a fresh spring-green patina, and one could be easily fooled into thinking that the effects of the California drought were perhaps exaggerated.

But of the 28 days in that month, 20 saw temperatures above average. As of April 1 the entire region had rainfall totals that ranged from 40 to 70 percent below average. And this is on the heels of three-plus years of significantly lower than average rain and snowfall. If you look at the reservoirs in the region, all are below 28 percent of maximum acre-feet in terms of storage capacity, and some are nearly dry.

As my California week went on, the sun shined brightly, and that patina of green began to reveal a dry, golden underbrush. Things are drying out. And fast.

This month, Gov. Jerry Brown issued California’s first ever mandatory water reductions decree. It ordered a 25 percent cut in water consumption for cities and residences. In a statement, Gov. Brown said, “I’m issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible.”

The order was precipitated by a winter that saw the lowest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierras, the source of much of California’s water supply, with snowpack levels hovering around 5 percent.

Interestingly, the restrictions imposed do not apply, at least for now, to the major users of water: the agricultural entities in the state. Farmers use up to 80 percent of the state’s water supply and account for just 2 percent of the state’s economy. And among those farmers are the wineries that grow and produce America’s most consumed and sought after wines.

To date, the water restrictions already in place have had minimal impacts on the industry from the standpoint of total grape production. In 2014, there were close to 4 million tons of wine grapes produced in California, the third highest total ever. And that followed the record year of 2013. Even with the continuation of drought-like conditions, if the weather patterns of the past three years continue, there is no reason to believe that near-historic harvests will not be met again.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, it would appear that the drought has actually had some positive impacts on the California, Oregon and Washington wine industries. If you consider that grapevines are insanely tolerant and thrive on stress, then a lack of excessive water is a good thing. The vintages from the past three years in the Napa Valley and Sonoma have been nearly universally hailed as outstanding, as stressed vines produce concentrated fruit that makes great wine.

There are many West Coast winemakers who subscribe to the theory that dry farming, using just the water that comes from the sky, is the best way to get the most out of your grapes from a flavor standpoint. That terroir is really about producing wine with what the land and sky give you. A stressed vine will usually yield smaller clusters and smaller grapes, but those grapes will frequently be the best grapes for making fine wines.

Still, water is an integral component of the wine industry. Even though the vast majority of high-end California vineyards today use drip irrigation techniques so that they can control, to the drop, the amount of water most vines receive, running a farm takes water. And for those who produce bulk wines for low prices, the key to getting high yields from their production is making sure the vines are nourished, i.e., watered.

But the wine industry is a pretty sophisticated business and one that has had to change and adapt through the years. In the 1980s, a devastating vine pest, phylloxera, hit the vineyards of California, forcing thousands of acres of vines to be replanted. Much of the rootstock that was ripped out were old, drought resistant vines that had roots that burrowed through the soils and rocks 20 to 30 feet deep as they searched for water. They were replaced by new plantings of riparian vines that were more tuned to the use of irrigation. It will be interesting to see as we move forward in this period of climate change what rootstocks are planted in the future. Winemakers are farmers, and farmers always adapt.

Pray for rain, people.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at

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