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San Diego grape growers don’t blame it all on the rain

Tough vines

When it comes to the California aggie scene, news headlines scream “drought,” conjuring up, at least in the minds of outsiders, sepia-toned images of impoverished farmers toiling in Dust Bowl grit. But whatever havoc has been wreaked in the Central Valley, down here in San Diego, the growers of grapes feel little or no wrath. ’Round these parts, nary a dead vine can be spotted. Yet it’s not that simple.

Rich McClellan of Highland Hills Winery, who grows a panoply of Rhone varietals such as Grenache and Rousanne on six Ramona acres, has been employing well water. Things are copacetic now, but he says that undue reliance on the hard, mineral-rich water could pose a problem in the long run. “Rainwater is essentially distilled water; it’s what plants love.”

“We had a peculiar year: essentially no rain but not much cold weather. What passes for winter in San Diego, we didn’t even have that. In summer, you can tell by looking at the leaves if irrigation is necessary, but during winter dormancy there are no indicators, so during this last dry January it was difficult to tell how much water we needed.”

When it comes to labeling a year as “dry,” McClellan notes, “There’s not a lot of history for comparison; we planted in 2007, so we don’t have 50 years of experience.”

Across the county, harvest is running three to four weeks early; most but not all county vintners with whom I spoke opine that the early harvest, stemming from unusually early bud break, has been due to warm weather rather than low rainfall.

Stephen Kahle says that this year, “The berries don’t look pretty; some of them have a faded color.”

Stephen Kahle says that this year, “The berries don’t look pretty; some of them have a faded color.”

Stephen Kahle, winemaker at Woof ‘N Rose, started picking Grenache (which is in some years harvested as late as mid-October) at the end of August; he theorizes that the combination of low rainfall and warm weather is at work.

Timing aside, how will local winemakers assess the 2013 harvest? Rich McClellan sounds an upbeat note:

“Everybody I talk to seems to be getting good yield and quality; I’m going to have a good crop.” On the other hand, Kahle, just a few miles south, laments, “I’m getting less than 50 percent of my average yield: 800 pounds instead of 2000–2200. There’s uneven ripening, with different vines blooming at different times; I have ripe fruit hanging next to immature fruit.” He’s a perfectionist. “The berries don’t look pretty; some of them have a faded color, there’s a lot of raisining, and, paradoxically, more mildew than I’d like to see.”

Kahle, whose offerings have drawn rave reviews among the cognoscenti, adds, “I could’ve compensated for lack of rainfall, but it took me by surprise; I didn’t start irrigating early enough. I’ve got a 250-foot well with a holding tank that settles out the sand, but I’d much prefer to have rainwater.”

And the tale of the gauge? As of the end of August, Weather Underground, a commercial weather forecasting service, reported that 3.99 inches of rain had fallen in Ramona since January 1, compared to a historical average of 11.61 for January through August. In 2013, the total was 3.4 inches for those eight months. For the entire calendar year of 2013, the tally was 5.02, while 2012 filled the gauges to the 7.48-inch mark. Depending on whose database you consult, mean annual precipitation in Ramona, the viticultural heart of the county, is around 15 inches. Weather Underground places it at 16.04 inches, while other sources put it as low as 13–14 inches.

Notwithstanding histrionics in the news media, there’s no cut-and-dried definition of “drought,” no single arithmetic formula or cutoff that sounds an alarm or triggers a cataclysmic chain of events. To begin with, precipitation is an intrinsically cyclical and variable phenomenon, where yearly means ­— often mischaracterized as “normal” by sloppy journalists — are fraught with large standard deviations caused by statistical outliers. Highland Hill’s McClellan notes, “In other parts of the country, the East or Midwest, where it rains 40 or 60 inches in a year, drought has a different meaning. In San Diego, the average rainfall numbers are thrown off by some big flood years. Have you heard of the Hatfield floods?”

From January 14 through January 30, 1916, following the efforts of “rainmaker” Charles Hatfield, San Diego County was deluged by, in some locations, as much as 30 inches of rain.

Joe Cullen, whose micro-boutique winery has garnered lavish praise and copious awards, says, “So far my vineyard isn’t that far off from last year. In fact, my yield is up slightly. But I’m also still paying for the years I dry-farmed two-thirds of the vineyard in 2008, 2009, and 2010. In 2011 I noticed tremendous stress and started irrigation in late July. The years 2007, 2008, and 2009 we had good rains. I think we had around 18-plus inches of rain in Ramona those years, so there was decent ground water. Also, they were cooler years, too. However, that experiment was a failure. I stressed the grapes too much and I’m still paying the price. Crop yield dropped from 6000-plus pounds to less than 2700 last year. I expect them to be back to normal next season, assuming we get at least normal rain. For my vineyard (the soil is two to three feet of sandy loam on top of a clay layer over decomposed granite), I think I would need an average of 20 inches to make the dry-farm protocol work. And I think that would have to happen for two years before thinking about doing it. I don’t think anybody is dry-farming right now.”

Out at Milagro Farms, situated at 1800 feet elevation at the eastern edge of the Ramona American Viticulture Area, winemaker Jim Hart has around 10,000 vines spread over 25 to 30 acres, which makes Milagro a big player by San Diego County standards.

“Our production is down by around 30 percent, but quality is good.” However, he believes that a reduction in fruit yield hasn’t been caused by a precipitation deficit but by strong out-of-season Santa Ana winds that roared through in May and knocked off buds. As for the rootstocks, they’re drought-tolerant, tough customers.

“We’re pulling more water from our wells, but so far we’re okay; there’s no problem with [water] hardness.”

San Diego County winemakers aren’t dependent on rainwater.

“Everyone irrigates here, unlike, for example, up in the Cucamonga area [San Bernardino County] where they dry-farm.” Hart says that although there’s no imminent problem, he does worry about depleting well water in the long term.

“If we were to pump down the aquifer long enough, we’d have to drill the wells deeper; we’d be devastated, because it costs around $20,000 just to bring a rig out.”

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