As Galileo reputedly said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” So there’s real reason to worry about the severe California drought that’s creeping through its fourth blistering summer. But before the fear of desiccated grapes and dead vines prompt you to buy up the entire 2014 vintage, remember that grapevines are nowhere near as thirsty as the broccoli, almonds or cattle that the Golden State exports to the rest of the country. Indeed, for those grape growers focused on the higher quality afforded by lower yields, restricting irrigation is a tried-and-true tool, and dry-farming is a viable reality for vineyards in certain corners of the state, from Westside Paso Robles to the Napa Valley. According to Jeff Newton, whose company, Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, farms about 2,000 acres across dozens of properties in the Santa Ynez Valley, the trick is to properly estimate how much fruit can be ripened with the water available. Through 2014, Newton’s clients have been able to get decent crops, and signs look good for this year, with the required water seemingly on tap. But still, Newton says, 2016 is “the wild card.” If it doesn’t rain enough this winter, he says, vineyards will likely have to severely prune in the winter and thin shoots and clusters into the spring and summer. “The drought may force us to reduce the crop as the season progresses,” Newton says, which would eventually drive supply down and prices up across the board. Ultimately, “everybody would suffer.” And clear skies aren’t the only thing haunting winemakers. State legislators are pushing for stricter groundwater rules, which could further limit irrigation for all of California’s crops. In the meantime, do what we Californians do better than anyone: Pray for rain. That may be the best way to keep that sunlight held together.
Do Your Part
Help conserve water by drinking these Central Coast wines made from dry-farmed vineyards. Boekenoogen 2013 Garrett’s Vineyard Dryland Estate Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $42, 93 points. This dry-farmed portion of the exciting family-owned estate delivers aromas of cardamom, pomegranate extract, cherry juice, ollallieberry, sweet woods and the yeastiness of a baking croissant. The palate shows cherry pie, pulverized cloves, star anise and more yeast, with a very full mouthfeel and silky tannins. Mount Eden 2012 Wolff Vineyard Chardonnay (Edna Valley); $20, 93 points. Buttered toast, oaky smoke and a slight mango tropicality converge for an epic nose on this Chardonnay from a vineyard that was planted in 1976. There are layers of flavor too, lime citrus at first evolving toward brioche with a butterscotch finish, and some salt and cracked pepper throughout. Peachy Canyon 2012 Bailey Zinfandel (Paso Robles); $38, 93 points. This is a unique and exciting take on California’s historic grape from one of the region’s pioneering wineries. Aromas recall sour cranberry, orange peel, strawberry and sagebrush. It’s savory and herbal on the palate, with baking and Indian spices of cardamom and chai as well as mocha. Foxen 2013 Tinaquaic Vineyard Estate Grown Dry Farmed Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $37, 92 points. This dry-farmed vineyard is often challenging for Winemaker Billy Wathen, but it worked this vintage, showing bright and ripe aromas of apple blossom, pear, honey and sweet lemon, all underlined by white-rock minerality. The lively palate shows lime soda and chalk flavors, with a pear-skin bitterness and ample acidity, which keeps the mouth tingling deep into the finish. Minassian-Young 2012 Estate Syrah (Paso Robles); $26, 88 points. This dry-farmed whopper of a wine, which is boosted with 10% Counoise and 10% Mourvèdre, offers rich aromas of blueberry, pine sap and mushrooms. It proves tremendously lush on the palate, with jammy, ripe fruit, picking up tannins and a tiny bit of acidity to approach balance in the midpalate. It’s for those who prefer power to finesse.