Dry farming has been a choice for California grape growers through most of California’s wine history.
But given the ongoing drought in the state, and its severity, it’s becoming more of a necessity.
Dry farming basically means that a grower depends only on the rain that Mother Nature provides as a source of water for the grapevines. It’s a perfectly logical approach to farming in areas that typically receive a good deal of rain, such as Washington state, but it can create challenges in drier states such as California — and those challenges intensify when drought conditions exist for an extended period of time.
Why is dry farming used at all? Many growers and winemakers believe (and scientific evidence bears it out) that a lack of water stresses the vines, and stressed vines produce berries that are smaller and, thus, more concentrated in aromas and flavors. Because wines with ultra-ripe flavors have been the preferred style in recent years, all of this has been seen as a positive.
There comes a point, however, when a lack of water leads not just to smaller, more concentrated berries, but to raisins. And that limits the winemaking possibilities to late harvest-style, ultra-sweet, almost Port-like wines — which are much harder to sell than dry but fruit-forward table wines.
Stuart Smith, one-half of the brother winemaking team at Napa Valley’s Smith-Madrone winery for four-and-a-half decades, had perhaps the best description of the 2015 harvest season.
Smith told Eric Asimov of the New York Times: “It’s been as normally bizarre year.”
In other words, if it isn’t an extended drought, it’s too much rain from El Niño. Rare is the absolutely perfect growing season, and grape growers and winemakers have to adapt all the time.
For some, during an extended drought, that means considering the possibility of dry farming.