Robert Nadeau, who produces “huge” Zinfandel wines near Paso Robles, California, said he sensed trouble when reddish silt started coming out of his faucets last year. Then, in August, nothing came out.
Nadeau has lived through three dry periods since he began farming six acres in the hills about 206 miles (332 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles in 1995. Last year was worse than any of them, he said. This year, with precipitation at one-sixth its seasonal average, promises to be even tougher for winegrowers in the area Wine Enthusiast magazine called Wine Region of the Year for 2013.
The drought has some residents questioning wineries’ water consumption and has forced growers to abandon vines. It prompted a campaign for a municipal water district to free farmers and homeowners from dependence on fickle weather patterns and dwindling groundwater, and it has growers in rural areas digging new wells in search of a reliable supply.
“There’s a lot of aggravation, frustration and fear in the area with neighbors pointing fingers over water use,” Nadeau, who has lived near Paso Robles since the 1970s, said in an interview. “This is a function of survival. One or two inches a year, the fourth year in a row. Our vines are struggling horribly.”
The state’s drought has left farmers to fallow land in the San Joaquin Valley, the world’s most productive agricultural region; led to restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars; and stirred interest in desalination plants and $15 billion tunnels to deliver water to cities in Southern California.
The lack of rain also threatens winemaking in California, a state that produced 89 percent of the wine in the U.S. in 2012, from boutique labels like Nadeau Family Vintners to corporations like Constellation Brands Inc., the Victor, New York-based maker of Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi and Clos Du Bois wines.
Almost 92 percent of California, including the Paso Robles winemaking region and parts of the Napa Valley, was experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought as of Feb. 11, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website. Paso Robles accounted for about 5 percent, or 26,000 vineyard acres, of the 546,000 acres of wine grapes in California in 2012, according to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dry conditions are likely to reduce grape production at Paso Robles vineyards by as much as 25 percent, as growers leave some vines to fend for themselves and almost every vine bears less fruit, four growers said in interviews on their properties.
Winemakers won’t be able to pass along many additional costs or lost profits to consumers because of competition from winemakers overseas and other parts of the U.S., said Jason Haas, managing partner of the Tablas Creek Vineyard near Paso Robles.
In 2012, the vines crisscrossing the sandy, rock-strewn hills near the now-dry Tablas Creek yielded 3.4 tons of fruit per acre, Haas said. Last year, with rain below seasonal norms, Haas harvested 2.6 tons per acre. That could drop to as little as 2 tons per acre this year, he said.
Since July 1, 2013, Paso Robles has received 1.41 inches of rain, compared with the seasonal average of 8.34 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Farther north, Napa has received 5.64 inches since July, the weather service said.
In the San Joaquin Valley, California’s largest winemaking region by volume, Fresno has received 2.30 inches of rain since July. There, producers such as E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world’s largest, and Constellation can tap the valley’s network of irrigation canals that also supply nut trees, dairies and cantaloupe growers.
Constellation is equipped to ride out the dry conditions for now, Greg Fowler, senior vice president of operations for the wine and spirits division, said by e-mail.
“However, if current conditions continue, we could be in for some challenges, particularly if our reservoirs, which we sometimes utilize via drip irrigation in the hotter months of the growing season, don’t start to fill,” he said.
In the hills between the town of Paso Robles and the Pacific Ocean, some growers including Nadeau eschew drip irrigation in favor of “dry irrigation,” meaning the vines rely on whatever water their roots can reach. The method often results in more robust wines as flavors are concentrated in grapes, Haas said.
Even so, there are limits. Nadeau said he may need to replace a quarter of his vines that have died or suffered drought damage. Having spent $25,000 on a new well to replace the one that failed last year, he’s planning to install an irrigation system to supplement rain in dry years.
Vines lie dormant in winter, with grapes typically beginning to appear in March or April.
Nadeau and Haas grow west of Highway 101, which bisects the town of Paso Robles and cleaves the winemaking region between the wetter, steeper western area closer to the Pacific Ocean and the semi-arid low hills to the east.
West of the highway, growers rely on rainfall and pockets of groundwater. To the east, they access the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, a 790-square-mile aquifer where about two-thirds of the water went toward winegrapes and other agriculture in 2009.
In August 2013, the board of supervisors in San Luis Obispo County, which includes Paso Robles and the surrounding countryside, declared a moratorium on new vineyards and other development. An estimated 4,000 acres of new vineyards planted on the basin in the previous two years contributed to a “sudden, unexpected” failure of a large number of homeowners’ wells, the supervisors’ resolution said.
Rosemary Bourgault, a homeowner on the basin whose well hasn’t gone dry, said the drought has frayed relationships between longtime residents and newer winegrowers whose crops carpet the hills near their homes.
“Wine is a luxury, it’s not a necessity,” she said in an interview. “I love wine. I love the industry, but we need to protect our water sources, not abuse them. Water is priceless.”
Vineyard owners east of Highway 101 are pushing for a water district that could tap wells throughout the region and build shared water storage to hedge against droughts, according to the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, the group behind the proposal. A water district also would allow for county officials to lift the development moratorium, the alliance said on its website.
Dana Merrill, president of Mesa Vineyard Management Inc. and vice chairman of the group, said winemaking has lifted the standard of living in Paso Robles while using less water than alfalfa and other farms it replaced. Residents and winegrowers have a common interest in stabilizing the region’s water supply against future droughts, he said in an interview.
“We still have a lot of water,” he said. “We have one of the biggest basins in California, but the basin is dropping. We have the time to do comprehensive planning.”
A water district would result in higher costs to property owners while serving the interests of “outsiders who are just planting like crazy,” said Erich Russell, who grows vines on 71 acres west of Highway 101 that would not be encompassed in a new district.
Russell, who founded Rabbit Ridge Winery and Vineyards in 1981, said farmers constantly confront difficult decisions due to weather conditions. He said his favorite vintage was 1989, when a series of heavy rains left his plants waterlogged and grapes looked gray when he crushed them. Russell said he salvaged the crop and made some of the best wine of his career.
“As a grower I’m going to have to decide which areas I’m not going to grow fruit on,” he said. “Growers never know what to expect. That’s part of the fun of doing this.”