Preparing for a Drought Year


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As the grape growing season kicks off, Winemaker & Viticulturist Bill Wathen takes us up to his Tinaquaic Vineyard, one of the only dry farmed vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

BILL WATHEN
The reason we’re dry farming up here is because we don’t have the water. So that’s it. It was, it was planted in 1989. 1989-90, relatively wet years. We planted these guys pretty deep, so probably 24 to 30 inches; sticks in the soil, and they, they took off. And it’s pretty fertile up here, nice ground, good soil. So far you know, it looks pretty good. In a average year, it’s, it’s easy. You know, it’s a no-brainer. We probably farm two to three tons of the acre up here. But say in a drought year, especially following a drought year, so next year possibly it’ll be a little severe. So we’ve had three inches in January and February of 2013, and we’ve had four inches so far, so that’s seven inches in two years. Our average here is 14 to 15 inches, so we’re dealing within two years. So what is it? 25% of normal. Dry farming has its good years and it has its bad years. But if you don’t have water, what are your choices?

WIL FERNANDEZ
You don’t think we’re getting the rain.

BILL WATHEN
I don’t think we’re going to get it.

WIL FERNANDEZ
Yeah?

BILL WATHEN
No. You know, they’re talking, they’re talking rain, “El Niño” possibly late this year. So if we have an early harvest light crop, that’s probably a good thing, rather than sitting on more fruit later, and getting torrential rains during harvest. You know, Mother Nature works with you sometimes.

These are cane pruned vines. Generally we leave a 14 to 16 bud fruiting cane, so this is the cane here. So they were out here, and we pruned in December and January. Pruning for normal crop up here. And then no rain, no rain, no rain, so we’re looking at you know, we definitely want healthy growth. And to get healthy growth without rainfall, we’ve got to have less numbers. So you know, there’s a lot of little tricks to kind of manage the vines in a situation like this. Ideally, you don’t want to stop them from growing because that’s going to be, that’s going to affect you next year.

WIL FERNANDEZ
Yeah, you mentioned that. So that you mentioned both…

BILL WATHEN
Yeah. Fruitfulness, fruitfulness is determined the year prior.

WIL FERNANDEZ
So do you get, I mean in terms of quality, are you getting… Is there anything you can see from a drought year in terms of, is it a more concentrated fruit?

BILL WATHEN
Definitely, I think there’s going to be more concentration because the berries are going to be smaller. You know, smaller berries make more intense wine. So yeah, we’re looking at probably smaller clusters this year than we’ve seen in a long time, and that’ll be smaller berries too. So it’s going to be interesting to see how it pans out. You know? I see a little bit of anxiety there. You know? You know, it’s amazing how nobody would ever think about it in a couple of wet years. It’s all going to be forgotten.