Vineyard owners and managers in Napa steward some precious natural resources: Our air, water, wildlife habitats, and scenic beauty are all integral to our farm plans and our sustainability.
Water is certainly a global concern and a local one. We are fortunate that in Napa, the agricultural jewel is wine grapes because for us, the days of wasteful flood and furrow irrigation are long gone. We are at the forefront of irrigation technology and use mainly the most efficient type: drip irrigation.
This method delivers the water directly to the root zone and limits the waste of water via evaporation. This system is incredibly efficient, and is bringing us closer to dry farming in some parts of the valley.
Our property is in Coombsville, and being in the Milliken Sarco-Tulocay Watershed, there are restrictions on water usage. When we purchased the property, I was inspired to plant our home vineyard without installing irrigation, but I wanted to go a few steps further. I wanted to come up with a way to continue to farm with the precision and quality I was used to, without the crutch of unlimited water.
I am a “new school” farmer. I like the idea of not irrigating but I was not going to give up the modern style of viticulture I had learned. Could they work together?
Grapevines are plants, so they need sunlight and water, but one thing is for sure: They are incredibly resilient. People have been farming them for thousands of years, long before the advent of modern agriculture.
There are several historically dry-farmed vineyards in the Napa Valley. We live near Bill Moore’s famed “Earthquake Vineyard,” which was planted in 1906, the year of the big San Francisco earthquake. I drive by this vineyard often and am captivated by the twisted strong frames of the vines. Each one looks like a work of art. It is amazing to remember that these vines have been producing excellent fruit for more than a century using only the water from winter rains. This wouldn’t be possible everywhere in the valley, but I had a feeling we could make it work on our site in Coombsville.
The first step with any new vineyard development project is site evaluation. Soil test pits allow you to look at the physical structure and chemical composition of the soil. Then we choose rootstocks, onto which the variety (we chose sauvignon blanc) is grafted.
I decided to plant one block on the site to historically dry farmed St. George rootstock, which was the predominant rootstock of many of the old plantings. The other block we planted to 420A, a newer hybrid, which came from France and produces small vines and very high quality wine. The root system on the St. George is large and deep, it is a good forager for water. In contrast, the 420A root pattern is considerably more modest.
As far as I knew, it had never been dry-farmed before, but it is drought tolerant and I just love the wines that it yields, so I decided to take the risk and go for it.
Another, less traditional change I wanted to make was to trellis the vines vertically and tighten up the rows. I know that typically old dry-farmed vineyards are head trained with sprawling shoots, but more control of the canopy was crucial to my experiment. Vineyard architecture is incredibly important to wine quality.
Having the vines trellised in a way that allows the fruit to get the right amount of sunlight is essential. We have gotten really good at using every inch of Napa’s valuable land by planting vines at high density. I planted more vines, but I asked each one to maintain a small size and less fruit.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would have to adjust my expectations of how much fruit I was going to get, and how long it would take.
It is unrealistic to think that you will be able to forego irrigation and get the yields of an irrigated vineyard. But who knows, maybe the vines would surprise me?
Regardless, I went in assuming it could yield a lot less fruit. I became more tuned in to the vines. If they seemed stressed, I could till in the cover crop, or remove some fruit. One thing was certain: Watering was not an option. When friends were stressed about heat and frantically watered their vineyards, I couldn’t. In a way, it was liberating to have fewer options. I had to trust the vines and my initial planning decisions. I had to let go of the control to which I was so accustomed.
Five years in, the wine from the vineyard is spectacularly flavorful, and the yields are better than we imagined. We consider the experiment a great success and our plan now is to plant more acreage in Coombsville, without irrigation.
This is what makes farming so exciting: You work with your site and let it guide you through the process. We’ve found that our dry farming experiment worked well for our site and we look forward to another harvest on the Freckle Farm. We are green-thinning the vines now and so far, things look great. The blackberries, peaches, and tomatoes in my garden all taste incredibly intense this year, and I find that usually translates well to grapes. Here’s to a great 2013 vintage.