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California drought amounts to mixed blessing for winemakers this harvest

Julian Del Gaudio

When you walk around Tablas Creek vineyard in Paso Robles, there are few obvious signs that California is in one of its worst droughts on record.

“It actually looks less different than you would expect grapevines have evolved to grow well in climates that are dry” says Jason Haas who runs this vineyard.

Grapes have their origins in the Middle East and Mediterranean, two regions with similar and sometimes even drier climates than the Central Coast.

Vines have adapted ways to protect the plant when rainfall is scarce and that included changes to the fruit production.

“We found that the ratio between skins and juice was actually higher than normal this year maybe because the third year of a drought made the berries smaller, making the skins thicker so the wine should have a ton of character” continued Jason and some local wine experts believe this change in the grape will result in a vintage of extremely high quality wines.

“We may be looking at the most valuable harvest of California’s history” according to Matt Brain, the Cal Poly cellar master. He says what Jason Haas at Tablas Creek is seeing is an indication of the overall harvest this year.

“Its kind of shifting things towards the winemakers ideal, when there’s less rain you get smaller more concentrated fruit in general, and that leads to higher concentrated flavors and aromas, which is generally higher quality” concluded Brain.

Dry vines also increase the concentration of tannins, a chemical found in grape seeds, stems and skins that help stabilize wines allowing for better aging but there is a dark side to this high quality harvest and that is related to the excess stress drought conditions put on the vines. While dry conditions may make for more flavorful fruit, it eventually hurts the longevity of the vine itself.

“There’s concerns about vine health, there’s concerns about what our ability to produce a crop and ripen that crop will be. We were concerned this year and this year worked out pretty well ” says Audra Cooper, a wine broker with Turrentine Grapes and Wine Based in the Bay Area.

Cooper makes her living buying a selling some of California’s most sought after grapes and she’s seen vines from this harvest break down earlier than normal this year in a few areas as well as signs of virus susceptibility.

“3 years into a drought puts a lot of stress on these plants that we’re all growing. These are grapevines that are suppose to live 100 years and each year that they work with less water than they really want it puts extra stress on them” continued Jason Haas.

In an effort to keep up with current irrigation needs, vintners are drilling new or deeper wells to protect against another dry year.

“There is such a demand for wells right now that the drilling companies are absolutely overwhelmed,” said Brain. “They’re backlogged years out to get work done because there’s such a high demand. People are drilling more wells, they’re taking their wells deeper to try and hit different water.”

However even with the wells, when vintners water the vineyard through irrigation and the soils don’t get flushed in by winter rains, you get a buildup of salts and that’s all because the salts are higher in the irrigation water.

“Now we’re already starting to see some impacts of this salt accumulation in the soil and its not a good thing,” said Brain. “It can be extremely detrimental if we don’t get that rain to flush it through eventually.”

For now the industry is mostly celebrating its valuable 2015 harvest with eyes on keeping the plants healthy for the future. “The quality of this vintage, as is often true with low yielding vintages looks spectacular but now it can rain” concluded Haas.

Whites from this vintage are expected to hit the store shelves as early as this February of 2015 and reds projected to come out by next summer.