It’s easy for Michael Larner’s mind to wander to thoughts of next year’s grape-growing season, understanding that the fate of this year’s crop is mostly out of the winemaker’s hands at this point.
A grape farmer knows what happens this year sets up for the next.
That’s why the owner of Larner Vineyard & Winery near Solvang is keeping a watchful eye on the future — and the weather reports — hoping his well water lasts long enough and that the drought doesn’t leave his vines vulnerable to a late frost this month or the next.
Rainfall and frost prevention go hand in hand, Larner said, explaining that a good sprinkling of water can coat vines, heading off devastating effects of frost.
In 2008, he lost 50 percent of his vineyard when overnight temperatures dipped below 32 degrees and destroyed his sprouts.
That percentage mirrors the rainfall deficit the Santa Ynez Valley has seen the past three years — recording 5 or 6 inches instead of 13 to 18 — and explains the worry lines forming on the faces of winemakers throughout Santa Barbara County and California.
A threat to winemaking in drought-declared California has a much wider ripple effect, since the state produced nearly 90 percent of the wine in the United States in 2012, according to national statistics.
A smaller grape crop in 2014 wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since the 2013 tonnage fared better than expected, but more rain needs to fall next winter to keep the balance.
“Most of my vineyard is not sprinkler controlled,” Larner told Noozhawk, referring to the 80 percent of his 34 acres not protected from frost.
“It’s quite scary,” he said.
Where frost is not an issue, the overall health of vines causes concern, as is the case for Chad Melville, proprietor of Melville Vineyards & Winery on East Highway 246 near Lompoc.
The legume-based cover crop planted to sprout between rows of vines, bringing more nutrients and health into the soil, never took because of its dependence on rainwater.
Rain was also supposed to cleanse the soil and push down any damaging salt.
“That was a big bummer,” Melville said. “Healthy soil provides a good environment for healthy vines. Instead of farming one acre, I’m farming 25 percent of it.
“If you take out February’s big rain, we really have had nothing. Every year Mother Nature throws different obstacles at you — that’s farming. This year, drought is pretty high up on that list.”
Will drip irrigation be enough, will the well run dry and when are stressful unknowns for Melville, a grape farmer since 1997.
“The fear is, if we don’t get enough adequate water, sunlight, nutrients ... it’s really next year that’s affected the most,” he said.
While Melville uses fans to combat frost, some of those dependent on water are also reporting a two-week early start to the growing season, said Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of Santa Barbara Vintners.
“When vineyards see drought — lack of rain with warmer temperatures — the buds swell and release earlier than usual,” McLaughlin said. “Typically, a longer growing season is advantageous to wine grapes, but when your buds push early, you have concern with late frost in the spring. Every day that we continue without frost, it’s less likely that we’ll be faced with it.”
She worries that the drought might affect prices in 2015 and 2016.
Local winemakers are also keeping an eye on the water shortage in San Luis Obispo County, especially in Paso Robles, where a feud wages between residents and agricultural growers.
Nicholas Miller, a multigenerational farmer with grape and other crops in Santa Maria, Ventura and Paso Robles, finds himself in the middle of that feud, even though he’s pumping well water.
“This is about as exciting as I’ve ever seen it,” said Miller, of Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria. “I think we’re OK for this year, but there’s no doubt that we cannot sustain this going forward. Certainly everybody needs to be in this to conserve water, but I don’t think agriculture should be singled out.”
Larner’s Lompoc wells have dropped about 20 feet in the last decade, an unsettling discovery for someone who aggressively irrigated syrah, grenache and other vines the past few winters.
That’s become a secondary concern for now, one that could point to problems later.
“I think we’ve already written off rain,” Larner said. “We’re just keeping an eye on lows in the evening to make sure we don’t get any below 30. So far, looks good. We’ll see.”