Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Just Gimme Some of That Old Time Dry Farming: Napa-ites Say It Produces Better Wines

The Drought: What It Means for Winemakers

If you're in agriculture, right now you're all about knowing how to deal with the drought. For the past several years, water's been a particularly hot topic in ag circles - and top of mind for grape growers.

Until the early 1970s, all of Napa's vineyards were dry farmed. But when giant alcoholic beverage corporations "discovered" Napa Valley in the 1970's and started buying and running wineries, corporate owned wineries started demanding higher yields and began farming marginal areas. The result? Miles of black plastic tubing sprouted in vineyards from the valley floor to the mountain peaks. Water use shot up.

In addition, phylloxera (a vine killing disease) swept over the vineyards not long after. Some vintners see a connection to irrigated fields, which discourage vine depth (as vines seek water near the surface) and the disease's spread. Phylloxera can't reach the deeper roots, but it can devastate the shallow ones. Some growers with deeper vines survived the epidemic. Most growers replanted.

Today, irrigation is not a dirty word, but it's certainly not as likeable as "deficit irrigation," for instance. Sprinklers are, of course, passé (but still used by some old timers - even in Napa). Drip is here to stay. But smart growers are reconsidering. Will they get the water at the levels they've used in the past? Can they use less water? Should they use less water?

Is Dry Farming The Answer?

Organic farmers, with higher levels of organic matter in their soils, are already one step ahead in the coming era of water cutbacks because their soils retain water more readily. But they and their nonorganic peers may be using more water than they need to, say Napa's dry farming all stars.

Last week a few of the county's leading vintners - including organic veteran Frog's Leap (who've been dry farming for decades), French-owned Dominus (which waters only 2.5% of their vines) - and others offered their dry farming experience and knowledge to their fellow grape growers.

Frog's Leap winemaker and proprietor John Williams and other vintners say yes, dry farming saves water, but, equally as important, they say dry farming produces better grapes.

Grapes ripening on the vine at Frog's Leap
Williams and Frog's Leap vineyard manager Frank Leeds were the featured leaders of a dry farming afternoon workshop at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Organic Winegrowing Conference that drew more than 100+ attendees to visit two of Frog's Leap's dry farmed vineyards (both in St. Helena) - the historic Rossi Ranch (on Highway 29) and the White Barn vineyard (on Sulphur Springs Ave.).

In addition to quality concerns, yields are often commonly top of mind for growers and wineries. Leeds, Williams and three dry farming panelists addressed crop yields as well as quality issues - and many other related topics - in the in-depth tour, panel discussion and Q and A.

Rory Williams at Rossi Ranch explains Frog's Leap's dry farming practices
On the Valley Floor: Rossi Ranch

At the first stop - Rossi Ranch - Williams and his son Rory Williams and Leeds and his daughter Lauren Pesch divided the group into four smaller ones to tour the vineyards, explaining how dry farming techniques were used on the historic, 52 acre property to grow both head trained and trellised vines and in newly planted areas as well as existing 60+ year old Riesling and old vine Napa Gamay vines.

"We do hand shovel water to the baby vines and work to get their vines to go as deep as possible from the beginning," said Rory (whose tour I went on), "but just in the beginning."

Though the soil types ranged dramatically from loose, valley floor loam (home to the Riesling as well as Mourvedre, Carignane, Charbono and more) to heavy, adobe clay (planted to Sauvignon Blanc) close to the river, none were hard as a rock - despite three years of drought conditions.

Sloping Bench Land: White Barn Vineyard

After the walk and talk at Rossi Ranch, participants traveled by bus to the Sulphur Springs road location and reconvened on chairs in the Garden family's White Barn vineyard, planted to Zinfandel, which Leeds and Frog's Leap have farmed since the late 1990s. Said Leeds, "we've been growing our Zinfandel in this White Barn vineyard site since 1997. We're getting 5 tons to the acre and that's after dropping a lot of fruit."

From L to R: Dry farming panelists Mike Chelini from Stony Hill,
John Williams (standing), 
Tod Mostero from Dominus, and
Stu Smith from Smith-Madrone 
"I can't even tell you the problems when we first came here," said Williams. "We had rot problems, we had uneven ripening problems. We had dehydration. Disease was setting in. This was thought to be a vineyard that was going to have to be replaced.

"We're coming up on 40 years now and we don't see any problem with 40 more."

Williams led a panel discussion on dry farming techniques, joined by two panelists from mountain vineyards - old timers Stu Smith from Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Mike Chelini from Stony Hill - and Tod Mostero from Dominus who farms on an alluvial fan. (Of this list, only Frog's Leap is organic).

Stu Smith, Smith-Madrone Vineyards
"We find that we get smaller berries by dry farming," Smith said. "Dry farming gives us a better juice to skin ratio. Plus, I am only secondarily a farmer [and primarily a winemaker]. I farm for the wine."

Mostero says Dominus irrigates just 2.5% of its vines. "We keep irrigation to a minimum," he said. "There's a lot of fast moving water in an alluvial fan. We have water flow throughout the summer, running through our soils. We have underground rivers on the property where we've planted riparian rootstocks."

"Clearly one size doesn't fit all," Williams commented.

Frog's Leap's dry farming essentials - sprayer, cultivator and spader
Describing his own wine grape growing history in Napa Valley, Leeds said, "I've been farming for 30 years and I've never used irrigation. I've never use herbicides or pesticides. And we don't water vineyards.

"I was very lucky that the techniques that were used all throughout the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's were passed on to me," said Leeds, whose uncle Roy Chavez (1917-2012) was a Napa grower during those decades. "The grade sprayer and the spader - and that cultivator right there - that cultivator will replace irrigation. 

"If you want to invigorate your vineyard, that (the cultivator) is the way to go to make it look like an irrigated vineyard.

Leeds noted that the site had plenty of soil moisture despite three years of drought.

Ears perked up when Leeds said that the state paid 70 percent of the costs for his vineyard equipment because the new equipment had smog control (while the earlier equipment did not). The equipment was purchased with funds from the California Air Resources Board's Carl Moyer Grant Program

On a final note, Williams said dry farmed vines produce more balanced grapes which in turn makes for better wine.

"We get beautiful flavors, dead right - for two reasons -  one, the vines are fully hydrated and they've regulated their own growth. The other thing is, from a winemaking point of view, you've got a smart grapevine."

The grape roots, he said, are "where all the information is, in these last two or three root cells. They run the hormonal cycles of grapes."

Growth and ripening and other aspects of development are both regulated by these cells, he continued.

"That message comes from the roots. If your roots are constricted or living in a false environment of fertilizer and water, they don't know to send the message to the grapevine saying 'Let's go, the soil is drying, the temperature of the soil is warming up. Now's the time to ripen our fruit. Now's the time to produce flavor. Now's the time to produce color.'"

Williams blamed irrigation (and synthetic fertilizers) for making grapevines dumb. "If you have dumb grape vines - and we believe that's what results...you get a grapevine that has no idea what time of year it is, what the temperature of the soil is, what the moisture content of the soil is, what the pheromones and the fungi in the soil are saying…it has no idea of what's going on.

"It's not just about hydration and fertility and vigor management," Williams said. "It's this knowledge that comes from the deep connection to the soil - and the hormonal cycles that come out of that."


Note: Paul Franson also wrote an article about the event for Wines and Vines. See his coverage here.

For more on dry farming wines overall, see CAFF's web site here. The Caff.org web site also lists a number of wines from dry farmed vines, including some from organic vines.


  1. Great piece --- I'm writing about Napa in the 1970s and it's so interesting to me to hear about the "old days". Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, the dry farming wasn't quite as intense as the Frog's Leap approach which involves a lot of tillage (which is not good for the soil). Many organic growers are moving on to no till, dry farmed approaches.

  3. Dry farming is not necessarily the answer. Organic compost and increasing organic matter in the vines is equally as good as dry farming since it increases the water retention in the soils.