Richard Sauret never studied viticulture at a university, but after decades of working on vineyards in his native Paso Robles, he said it doesn’t take a college degree to understand that grapes do not need tons of water to produce quality wine.
For years, Sauret, former president of the Independent Grape Growers of the Paso Robles Area, has dry farmed zinfandel wine grapes on his 40-acre property off Drake Road. He relies on annual rainfall and plants vines less densely so that their roots have to search for water.
“I didn’t go to college, but I know how to farm,” said Sauret, whose grapes have produced award-winning wines for Rosenblum Cellars in the Bay Area. “The growers that have highdensity plantings will use a lot of water.”
While dry farming is not a one-size-fits-all solution — certain varietals need more water and grow best in a specific type of soil and climate, and dry farming vineyards produce lower yields per acre — many in the local agriculture community increasingly believe that steps must be taken to curb water use.
Local organizations like the nonprofit Central Coast Vineyard Team and the statewide California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance reach out to vineyard owners, educating them about a variety of conservation methods.
It’s unclear just how many North County vineyards have adopted water conservation practices. But the Vineyard Team has been instrumental in ensuring that 11,000 acres of Central Coast vineyards have become Sustainability-in-Practice certified — meaning they conserve energy and water and use other sustainable practices during the grape-growing process.
Kris Beal, executive director of the organization, whose 300 members — nearly half in the North County — represent more than 80,000 acres throughout the state and more than 20,000 locally, said the group hosts tailgate meetings in vineyards to demonstrate specific practices and offers input from technical advisers or growers.
Tools vary from real-time irrigation scheduling based on weather data to soil monitoring and conducting irrigation evaluations.
“I actually see irrigation management as being one of the stronger suits one of the few things that growers have control over,” Beal said. “It’s one of the most important things they can influence.”
Allison Jordan, executive director of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and director of environmental affairs for the statewide Wine Institute, said the alliance’s workbook has served as a guide for growers looking to become more sustainable.
Two sections, she said, are devoted solely to water — one specifically for vineyards — and feature more than 200 practices that have been adopted by more than 1,800 wineries and vineyards in California.
The program, which has existed since 2002, has led to improved sustainability practices, she said.
“This is a generational business, and they are looking out for how they can continue growing high-quality grapes for high quality wines for years to come,” Jordan said.
Education and awareness among growers and consumers about wine industry practices will be key to moving the conversation forward, said Stacie Jacob, executive director of Visit San Luis Obispo County, the county’s visitors and conference bureau.
“People see new vines going in, new construction going up, and they are peering into their own wells that are falling, and all of that feels bad,” she said, “so they’re asking, how can the wine industry be good for me?”
“We have to make it (learning about the industry) fun and meaningful to consumers,” she added. “Things like Down to Earth month and Savor the Central Coast can be a catalyst in that we find those niche audiences who want to do more than enjoy a glass of wine. They want to be rooted in where it comes from.”
WHAT VINTNERS CAN DO TO REDUCE THEIR WATER CONSUMPTION
While current vineyard practices are “already quite efficient,” there are many tools used by grape growers to reduce water consumption, said Mark Battany, viticulture and soils farm adviser for UC Cooperative Extension for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Conservation practices include:
Planting vines with drought-tolerant root-stocks.
Eliminating excessive weed or cover-crop growth, which at times consumes soil moisture needed by the vines.
Applying modern drip irrigation in the most efficient way possible, rather than using older sprinkler systems.
Using deficit irrigation, a practice in which less water is applied to the vines than they can potentially consume.
Reducing the use of sprinkler frost protection in locations where other options, such as wind machines or modified vineyard trellising practices, would be equally viable.
Expanding use of technologies such as soil moisture sensors.
SOURCE: MARK BATTANY, UC COOPERATIVE EXTENSION
FIVE VINEYARDS USE A RANGE OF TECHNIQUES
A look at how five North County vineyards are conserving water:
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Paso Robles: J. Lohr uses pressure bombs in its vineyards to measure the sap flow through the vines. This instrument indicates how much water the vines need and saves water during the growing season by using no more water than necessary to grow the vines. Owner Steve Lohr said his winery has a water conservation program and has strived to become more efficient with water since the early 2000s, cutting water use by about 60 percent since that time.
Turley Wine Cellars, Templeton: Turley, which makes 28 separate wines from 35 vineyards, some with old vines from the late 1800s, dry farms its grapes. The practice relies on water from annual rainfall to support grape production. Roots must reach deep into the soil for water.
Pear Valley Vineyards, Paso Robles: The winery monitors soil moisture in various sections of the vineyard so vines are watered only when needed. The winery has a wastewater treatment plant that pulls in rainwater, which is then treated and discharged into a pond to be used in the vineyard.
Halter Ranch, Paso Robles: Owner Hansjoerg Wyss has adopted dry farming in specific areas of the property, said winemaker Kevin Sass. Of 40 newly planted acres on the 281-acre portion planted with wine grapes (predominantly grenache, carignane and tannat), 25 of them are set up to be dry farmed. The vineyard facility features a rainwater collection system on the roof, which catches water and sends it to a pond where it can be used for irrigation of the vineyards. Halter Ranch also uses a pressure bomb reading to measure the amount of water the vines need.
Pipestone Vineyards, Paso Robles: Owner Jeff Pipes, a former hydrogeologist turned winemaker, organically farms his vineyard, using a team of horses to plow the earth and tools to gauge how much water it’s getting. He uses a variety of cover crops — native grasses and legumes — to give his soil better structure and allow water and nutrients to penetrate the roots.