What Record Rainfall Means for California Winemakers
The first three weeks of 2023 have dealt California a colossal amount of rain. To date, the state is almost 170 percent ahead of where it would normally be in terms of precipitation, with areas in central California even wetter than that. The mountains have seen a historic amount of snow, and the valleys have been doused with rainstorm after rainstorm, resulting in flooding, major power outages, and even deaths.
Perhaps most surprising is that no part of the state has been spared. Rainstorms have hit everywhere from Mendocino to Encinitas, the Russian River to Paso Robles, and everywhere in between. As you also likely know, California is far and away the nation’s leading wine producer. So, how has all this severe weather affected the industry?
The recent weather has certainly created some snags but overall, for a state in the midst of a colossal drought, the plusses may outweigh the negatives.
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La Crema sources from vineyards all over California. Since 2008, the winery has cut its water usage in half, according to the brand’s general manager, Jim Sturgeon. “Water is a huge resource for us, so rainwater capture and water recycling are a big part of our conservation efforts,” he says. “To date, La Crema has captured 50,000–75,000 gallons of rainwater this rainy season that will be used for our cooling systems. We have the capacity to store up to 200,000 gallons.”
Out in the vineyards, weather like this can cause everything from landslides to downed trees and swollen rivers. But La Crema winemaker Craig McAllister says they’ve fared pretty well so far. “Throughout the year, our vineyard teams have been diligent with erosion control through establishing cover crops and water diversion and capture in our vineyards,” he says. “Thankfully, I’ve not heard yet of any damage to our vineyards. I’m optimistic that we’ll see more long term positives than negatives from these storms.”
He adds that reservoirs are filling, a perk for a region that’s seen some serious water shortages over the last few years. But all that water can pose a problem, especially for younger, shallower-set vines. “Older, more established vines with deeper root systems stand a far greater chance of surviving flooded soils,” McAllister says. “Younger vines or those rootstocks with shallow roots tend not to fare as well, especially in areas with prolonged flooding.”
Over at Davis Estates in Calistoga, owner Mike Davis and his team have been adapting to the changing and increasingly extreme climate. Part of their erosion control protocol involves not just ground cover but other implementations. They dig rock line ditches, essentially trenches to capture water, and install drain pipes to steer excess water away. They also use wattles, a means of adding some roughness to a slope to prevent sediment movement, and spread hay in flat areas to sponge up water. He emphasizes that during this time of year, vines are dormant, meaning they can withstand more curveballs from Mother Nature.
“Once vineyards go into a dormant state, they can endure flooding and freezing temperatures,” he says. It’s when the buds emerge in the spring that inclement weather can really do some damage. Yet, even in mid-winter, it’s a one-two punch when considering another element of climate change that’s deeply affected the region lately: fire.
“Because of the Glass Fire which impacted us in 2020, we’re very concerned about our burnt hillsides and their ability to withstand these conditions,” he says. “Over the last two years, we’ve had to remove hundreds of dead trees that were burned in the fire, which leaves the ground vulnerable to erosion. Fortunately, we were able to leave many of the root structures in the ground, which helps to keep the soil in place and protect our vineyards.”
Matt Revelette, winemaker at Siduri, grows in five iconic West Coast AVAs, including the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands. “Abundant rain during the dormant season is certainly one of the best things to ‘worry’ about this time of year,” he says. “Although we may be busier dealing with windblown tree limbs and debris than pruning the vineyards, we’re grateful for the water and that people are safe.”
He says that something of a rebirth happens beneath the surface with major precipitation like this. “Once the soil profile becomes saturated, any salt buildup from irrigation gets washed down, so the soils are refreshed in a sense to start the new season in the spring,” he says. Revelette mentions that rain like this can reinforce optimism for the coming vintage. “More water in the soil means a later bud break, less irrigation, and stronger canopies in the early going,” he says. “I’ll take it.”
There are tales like this across the California map. The weather is hard on a lot of things (especially infrastructure like roads and bridges) but seemingly a boon for the ag sector. Winemaker Adrian Manspeaker of Joseph Jewell Wines says it’s been tricky to get around his Sonoma County home base with the wind and overflowing creeks, but the water is still welcome. “Where I live in Forestville, we’ve had over two feet of rain in 2023,” he says. “The annual average is 30 inches, so we’re already almost at our yearly benchmark. This is what we need during the winter.”
Should a major power outage occur in wine country, now would arguably be the best time. Presently, wines are resting in barrel and tank and need little more in the way of electricity than cool weather, which is occurring naturally throughout much of California right now. There would be inconveniences, sure (especially operating a tasting room), but it wouldn’t be devastating.
It’s one more thing West Coast vintners have to think about in a changing landscape. But, like farmers have for generations, the industry is evolving alongside the madness.
“The atmospheric river has created a conundrum,” Davis concludes. “Agriculture aside, bad weather brings with it a slew of cancellations by tourists planning to visit the Napa Valley. In my humble opinion, this is a small price to pay for a positive long-term outcome.”
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