Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Silver lining for winemakers in state’s drought

Despite recent rains, the great parching of California continues, with much of Folsom Lake still resembling Burning Man’s craggy Black Rock Desert and Central Valley farmers preparing for a dust-bowl spring and summer.

But Mark McKenna of Amador County’s Andis Wines isn’t sweating the drought. In fact, he’s welcoming the lack of wet weather.

McKenna believes 2014’s dry conditions could produce one of the best wine vintages in recent memory. Stressed vines produce better fruit – at least in the short term – and a smaller crop in 2014 could address oversupply issues that have burdened the state’s wine industry in recent years.

He knows that his cup-half-full take on the drought won’t make him popular in many circles. After all, three straight years of low rainfall are leading to potential doomsday scenarios. Some San Joaquin Valley farmers are letting their fields lay fallow, or removing crops to reduce their irrigation needs. The financial effects on agribusiness won’t be a drop in the bucket. The California Farm Water Coalition expects the state’s farm production to fall by more than $3.5 billion.

McKenna too is affected by the shortage. He depends on well water to supply his Amador County home, and on some mornings when he turns on the tap, he wonders just how much will be there for his family.

But those dehydrated wine-producing soils of the Sierra foothills? McKenna doesn’t worry about those.

“Truth be told, some of the best wines in the world come from the most stressed vineyards,” he says.

Plants with an ample water supply tend to focus more on leaf production and other vegetal parts, he explains. Make them thirsty and the vines are forced to concentrate on fruit quality, and that’s precisely what a vintner looks for when it’s time to craft wines.

Those water-starved vines might produce less overall fruit, but the grapes might just be juicier on the whole.

“From purely a winemaker’s standpoint, I’ll take a vintage with a lower yield and higher quality any day,” McKenna says. “It’s a ray of sunshine among the clouds.” (Or in California’s case, a rain cloud on another relentlessly sunny day.)

A smaller crop for 2014 could be a plus for California’s wine industry overall. Increased vineyard plantings around the state contributed to two consecutive years of mammoth crops, each with more than 4 million tons of crushed grapes. California reaped a record 4.7 million tons of wine grapes in 2013. That’s a 7 percent increase over 2012, the previous record of nearly 4.4 million tons crushed.

The problem with such abundance: A wine glut can undermine profits for both vineyards and wineries, and leave a flood of bulk wines that backs up inventories.

“It doesn’t benefit anyone when we go into an oversupply situation,” McKenna says. “Warehouses and tanks fill up, and (the wines) have no home.”

McKenna’s drought optimism isn’t shared across California’s wine world. Drought was a key topic at January’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, where a state-of-the-industry presentation warned about the possibility of increased vineyard pests and lack of frost control when water becomes scarce.

Andis Wines enjoys a fairly specific situation in the Sierra foothills, home to some of California’s oldest vineyards. Andis specializes in the area’s signature varietals: zinfandel, barbera, grenache, primitivo. Wine grapes have been grown there since the Gold Rush, and those weathered old vines are much better suited to handle seasons with limited water, as their deep roots can access moisture and nutrients in the soil that younger vines can’t reach.

McKenna has had to make adjustments during the dry 2014 growing season, including an aggressive approach to pruning to concentrate the vines’ energy. The paucity of rain left Andis’ 25 acres without its usual cover crops, a method of managing water consumption in vineyards. The harvest will likely come early this year, and he’ll monitor sugar levels closely to find the prime time to pick.

But he holds faith that as tough as the drought may be, these dry years may just be a blip in California’s rich agricultural history. Droughts have come and gone, but a thirst for California wine remains.

“People have been getting by on blood, sweat and tears in our area since Ulysses S. Grant was president,” McKenna says. “Maybe it’s that spirit of frontier mentality. We’ve been through hard years and challenges before, but that’s not going to keep us from making great wine and having fun.”