Sonoma wine country is preparing itself for a drought that has caused the area to look like it’s July instead of May.
Sonoma wine country is dealing with another potential economic blow. Last year, fires hit Sonoma and Napa Counties, and the entire state had to deal with pandemic-related closures. This year, the area is parched from the extreme to exceptional drought that has gripped a large portion of the state, including Sonoma County, and it’s already affecting grape production.
Grapes are the highest value fruit crop grown in the US and, while wine is grown in all 50 states, California produces 85 percent of all wine in the country. Wine has a relatively high water footprint, especially in the US where the vines are irrigated, even though irrigation is controversial because it can change a wine’s ‘terrior‘ – the taste that reflects where and how the grapes were grown. Irrigation can increase a vineyard’s productivity but it can ruin the terroir of a grape. Nevertheless, in the US, as investors have increasingly influenced vineyard practices, productivity has trumped taste, and many operations have embraced irrigation. The practice is especially problematic once drought settles into a region, as is the current situation in the western US.
While much of the western US is in some degree of drought, the California wine country is particularly bad.
“Two years of very low rainfall in and around Sonoma County have left the region beyond parched. Its soil moisture is extremely low. Stream flows are dwindling or have dried up altogether, which has left vegetation in severe stress, and groundwater levels notably diminished. All of those factors are taken into account in classifying the degree of drought.”
Adam Hartman, a meteorologist with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C.
Still, growers say a single year of drought can be handled. “It’s mostly a matter of knowing how to manage properly through the drought. The real threat…is continuous years of drought, which can affect vine health, yields and profitability for growers,” says Moon Mountain Vineyard’s, Erich Bradley.
Measures that help conserve water include “removing unwanted new growth, thinning the grapes and postponing planting new vines. Luckily, the Sonoma region tends to focus more on smaller-scale, world-class wines, valuing quality over quantity.