Tightening the tap
I am sitting in my second floor office looking out over our fantastically beautiful Sonoma Valley below in the early dawn, looking at the blue-black mountain ridges that form our valley’s eastern boundary. Later in the morning, they will remain dark blue in the shadow of the rising sun. Dark gray-green vineyards and the line of dark green trees that demark the site of the nearly dry Sonoma Creek lie between me and the eastern mountains. I am an early riser and even though I see different versions of this scene every morning, I am still astounded at the beauty and the pure luck that brought us to live in this beautiful place.
And more than live here, we grow grapes and make wine with all the wonderful flavors and aromas that result from the unique terroir of our lean and rocky hillsides. It is said that great wines from these vineyards do indeed gladden the hearts of men – and of course women, too. And whenever these thoughts come up, I am face-to-face with the bigger question of what our small family farm can do every day to keep this beauty alive and available down the years.
Harvest 2015 is now complete. The quality is excellent but all across the county the volume is off some 40 percent, an unusually uniform and significant reduction of production and revenue.
The buds for this season’s fruit were formed in May 2014, well before this year’s dry conditions set in. This suggests that somehow the vines were able to make a correction sometime in April or May of this year, regardless of signals from those 2014 buds.
I have always wanted to find out if the vines have some method of communicating among themselves. There is a lot of anecdotal material on this subject but no data that I have seen. For all I know they may have a union … “No matter what last year’s buds say, we don’t do our thing unless we have some generous amounts of water.”
Keeping our vines in top shape has been a major undertaking this year. The overriding issue has been, of course, water, and it will stay with us even if El Niño brings us generous rains this year.
We hired a professional irrigation company to review our 35-year-old irrigation system. As you would expect, they found a host of places where we were wasting water. I put out our first irrigation lines in 1978 to plant our first Zinfandel vines while I was still working for Monsanto. As we expanded the vineyard, we kept adding more lines as new equipment and irrigation systems kept developing along with the burgeoning wine industry.
We were not surprised by the state of our system. On the bright side, making it right has potential to reduce our water use by 20 percent.
But this is a big job. We will modernize our irrigation system block by block over the coming year.
We are also considering changes in our grape varieties to make sure each variety of grape optimizes market conditions, cost, and potential revenue. Moreover, we will be experimenting with new technology that lets us monitor the grape moisture evaporation rates, and more accurately measure actual vine water use.
Balancing water needs, production costs and potential changes in our crop selection have given us a full plate to address, along with potentially reduced revenues from a small crop this year.
About four years ago we planted some 50 Zinfandel rootstocks in a small plot above our existing Zinfandel vineyard – without irrigation. Our intent was to see if we could dry farm our vineyard. Until the invention of black plastic irrigation lines, all the vineyards in Sonoma County were dry farmed.
Those vines are all standing up there with cheer and great courage, and a few of them have started developing their first fruit!
A new hillside, dry farmed vineyard will take about five years to come into production, as opposed to a three-year time frame for irrigated vines. And the dry farmed block will produce about 60 percent of the equivalent irrigated block. Luckily, there is a very inexpensive and effective aide that can make starting the new little root stocks of vines easier. It is called “Dry Water.” You place a small amount of this gelatinous cellulose material next to the roots of the new vine. Over time, the Dry Water will gradually provide water to the new vine.
Dry Water has been used to start farms in sands of Egypt and Libya for decades now, and is a home-grown product of Sonoma County. We’ll see if it can’t help us out in the new climate to come.