Severe Drought…But is It Hurting the Wine Industry?

How is the drought affecting the wine industry? This is the most common question I get from guests traveling with me to Napa and Sonoma. The easy cop out answer: not as much as people may think…for now, at least.

Already half way through year five of severe drought, one could easily get the impression that the wine industry is the silver lining during such doom and gloom. According to the Napa Valley Register, citing California’s Department of Agriculture, more grapes were harvested in California in each of the last three years than any of record. Napa Valley was no different with Napa grape growers setting an all-time high in 2014, raking in $706 million, an 11% revenue increase.  

Activists cite that while Governor Brown has ordered the rest of the state to reduce water consumption by 25%, agriculture, which consumes the largest portion of the state’s water supply, is exempt. Meanwhile more grapevines continue to be planted each year to keep up with the flourishing demand for California wine. 

So are we trading in a glass of water for a glass of wine? Depends who you ask. Napa is unique in that it sits on top of large underground water reservoir. So while surface water may not be flowing at normal levels, it’s able to tap into a fairly stable underground water source. For this reason, Napa is considered fairly self-sufficient.  

This is very different for the Central Valley’s San Joaquin where most of the state’s wine grapes actually come from. Its largest water source is California’s State Water Project, a water system that pipes watershed from northern California to central and the rest of southern California. Unfortunately though, this water source is being tapped out, functioning at about 20% of normal capacity. San Joaquin Valley is on course to take a huge hit.

On the positive side, grapevines do not require a significant amount of water relative to other crops. When a vine strains for water, roots dive deeper for a source, and actually produce more concentrated fruit, usually smaller with thicker skins---which not by chance has resulted in many hailing the 2012, ’13, and ’14 vintages as some of the best in years. Nevertheless, if the drought continues, vine strain will eventually produce much lower yields and in some cases result in farmers having to decide which block to water or just let go.  

Growers and wine producers are preparing for the worst, meeting regularly to share irrigation best practices, sustainable farming techniques, and the possibility of dry farming. The solution of course is simple—rain. Until then, we all need to do our part to keep the glass half full.