Outlook Droughtful


Myles Lawrence-Briggs

The rest of the country may not know it, buried under heaps of snow as it is, but California is in the midst of the worst drought in recorded state history. The Occidental area where our vineyards are located have only recently topped twenty inches of rain when it should be in the sixties. Our Hillcrest vineyard has decided it’s spring already and is in full bud-break almost a full month ahead of schedule. We’re seeing real-world effects of climate change and the wine industry should be asking itself what it’s going to do to adapt.

This exact scenario was actually predicted ten years ago by researchers at UC Santa Cruz. They found that disappearing arctic ice has helped create a stubborn ridge of high-pressure of the northwest coast of the US, dubbed by climatologists the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.” This tenacious mass of air has been pushing the traditional Pacific winter storms north into Canada and even onto the east coast as the storms pass the ridge and finally make their way south again. So if you’re reading this on the east coast somewhere under eight feet of snow and wondering how anyone can possibly believe in global warming, keep this in mind: that’s California’s rainfall you’re under. If you could please ship it back here we would be very grateful.

In California agriculture makes up 80% of yearly water use, so it will be up to farmers and agriculture-dependent industries like wine to lead the way in making change. Grapevines in particular aren’t the thirstiest crop out there and fall far behind crops like alfalfa, but they’re perennial; meaning farmers can’t choose to not reseed a field of grapevines during a drought to cut back on water usage. Vineyard managers everywhere are going to have to come up with some creative solutions to keep the vines viable during a drought.

At Senses we already have some ideas. Last year we began to experiment with cutting back on water to see what the vines could handle. We ended up cutting our watering almost in half and plan on reducing by a further 25% this year. The plan is to ween Hillcrest off water entirely and making it a dry-farmed vineyard, relying on natural rainfall and the foggy coastal mornings to deliver our water. We will also be using modern equipment to monitor the water content of vines so we have a precise idea of when we absolutely must water, rather than relying on signs of water stress in the leaves and shoot-tips. In addition, any new plantings we do will be on roots specifically designed for drought and will be raised as dry-farmed wherever possible.

Water is a precious resource and we want to do our part to help. At Senses we believe the true measure of a business is not just its financial success, but how it contributes to its community. But if any farmers reading this are on the fence about cutting back on their water usage consider this: it’s also a smart business decision. The same UC researchers that predicted this current drought have made another prediction: the next decade will be even drier.┬áIt’s very likely there will be vineyards in the near future that will have to be ripped out or abandoned due to lack of water availability. These won’t be Senses vineyards, don’t let them be yours.