Water and Wine

This weekend, I went to Captain Vineyard to harvest Petite Sirah. Having never harvested wine I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I was amazed to find Captain Vineyard is tucked into a residential hillside in Moraga, California. Captain Vineyard contains 3,500 lines that create the following wines:

  • Pinot Noir (600 vines)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (200 vines)
  • Petite Sirah (1,500 vines)
  • Petite Verdot (650 vines)
  • Cabernet Franc (450 vines)
This boutique winery was like no other winery I have been to, being on a hillside and in Moraga, California numerous questions came to mind:
  1. What exactly is dry farming?
  2. How much water does the winery use?
  3. Where does the water come from?
  4. Did the drought impact a winery?
Captain Vineyard is a family business as well as a  green business,  Susan and Salah pride themselves on their unique approach to dry farming. After converting the steep hillside (backyard) into a terraced five acre vineyard, Susan returned to school at UC Davis to further understand Viticulture. She modeled the vineyard on the European hillside style, affording healthy stress and competition between vines. In 2005, the soil was ready for vines and approximately 3,000 vines were planted. The Moraga microclimate provided the ideal microclimate for grape-growing.  In 2007, 500 vines were added to include Cabernet Sauvignon.
What exactly is dry farming?
 
The vines do not benefit from irrigation. The struggle to survive puts stress on the vines and stress, if you ask some folks equals flavor, complexity and balance in wines. The first thing that happens when you stress a vine is the yield of that vine goes down. Fewer grapes are produced, so energy is concentrated on the remaining grapes.  This was extremely beneficial for Captain Vineyard because dry farming not only allowed them to turn their hillside into a vineyard, but the vines provided support for the entire project. Dry farming forces the vines to search for water, probing deeper and deeper into the soil so that they are prepared for drought.  To create this behavior, you must start by digging a hole next to the base of each vine. Whenever the plant begins to wilt, you dig into the hole next to the base of the plant and water the plant. Each time you water the plant you dig the hole deeper and deeper. This way the plant begins to search for future water deeper in the soil.
How much water does the winery use? 

With the use of Dry farming EBMUD praises Captain Vineyards for their smart water use. Traditional grape growers use as much as 20 gallons to make a single gallon of wine. The Captains implemented a spacing method called “5×3” meaning the vine rows are 5 feet apart, and plants are 3 feet apart minimizing water use. The vineyard also uses the drip irrigation and has trained their vines to use less water. Watering less frequently and for  a longer duration trains the root system to go more deeply into the soil, thus improving the water supply capability of the root system. Captain Vineyards saves up to 16,000 gallons of water per acre annually, using 67% less water compared to another vineyard of equal size. To give you a sense of the quantity of water consumed in 2009 the 2.5 acres of vines and only consumed 253,572 gallons. (the average person consumes 50 gallons a day)


Where does the water come from? 

Captain Vineyard is similar to other homes in their neighborhood and has a well that supplies most of their water. However, dry farming refers to the practice of relying only on natural annual rainfall. Therefore, the vineyard primarily relies on rain with very little irrigation.
Did the drought impact their harvest?

Globally the United States has the largest wine market, and California makes up about 90% of that wine market. In 2011, wine sales hit a new high of $32.5 billion for the United States. The recent drought had a limited impact on the quality of the grapes harvested this year. Drought means two things for a winery, quality of the harvest (higher Degrees Brix) increases but the quantity of harvest decreases. The increase in quality is due to the concentration of flavor and sugars within each grape and a reduction in pest/disease within the crop overall.  The Degrees Brix, is a scale that measures the sugar content of an aqueous solution. One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of the solution, and it represents the strength of the solution as a percentage by weight (commonly used in wine, sugar, fruit juice, and honey). Typically in drought-stricken years wineries are known to produce less volume but the product has a higher value due to the high level of quality. This year was unique at the Captain Vineyards because the Degrees Brix was higher than last year’s average and the expected yield for this year was two tons larger than last year. Looks like dry farming and the consistent weather is working in their favor.