Drought Revives 'Forgotten Art' at Wineries: Farming Without Irrigation

“You use what Mother Nature gives you,” said the 72-year-old owner of Canard Winery, who dry farms all his grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot. “And as a result, I think we get better quality.”

That doesn’t mean leaving the vines idle and praying for rain. Dry farming requires the right kind of soil to absorb and retain natural moisture. It needs vines with deep roots to seek out that water, especially in times of severe dryness. And it takes careful tilling and pinpoint soil management to make sure the vines survive the hottest months.

The trade-off can be lower yields. That’s a problem for cheaper wines but less so in top growing regions like Napa Valley where winemakers of all stripes limit yields to ensure flavor is sufficiently concentrated in the grapes.

Everyone used to dry farm wine grapes until the late 1970s, when irrigation was introduced. Dry farmed wines put California on the global map by winning a seminal blind tasting test in 1976 called the “Judgment of Paris.”

Today, only a handful of producers continue the tradition — and only where there’s just enough rain. Adherents are discovering revived interest in the practice now that California’s $23-billion wine industry is facing an emerging water crisis of historic proportions. …


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