CVIndependent

Fri11152019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

If you want to make it rain in wine country, you can try the usual magic rituals—like washing your car, planning a sunny picnic or forgetting your raincoat.

Or you can simply decide to write about the impact of drought on the wine industry.

The sky was clear when I started thinking about water and wine, as I drove up the bone-dry Interstate 5—desert dry, crispy dry, whispy dry—in late January. I’d been jarred by stark images from NASA’s Terra satellite, showing a swath of tan mountains reaching up along the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, juxtaposed with a 2013 shot of a snowy white Sierra Nevada

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California on Jan. 17. A few days later, state health officials released a list of 17 communities and water districts—from Mendocino County to Kern County—that could run dry before summer if no action was taken.

Then in early February came rain—up the coast from Monterey to Crescent City, in Napa and Sonoma, on the coast and in the foothills. It snowed over Lake Tahoe and the Sierra. Even here in SoCal, we had a couple of overcast days and a few rain sprinkles.

Ahh. The sweet smell of hydration.

Of course, the drought’s still on. Just as record freezing spells in the Midwest don’t negate the reality of global warming, a nice soaker isn’t going to make up for several months of missing precip. California’s still having the driest year ever, according to state climatologist Michael Anderson. Anderson noted in January that, statewide, only 1.53 inches of rain were recorded from October through December, the lowest aggregate total since record-keeping began in 1895. The average for that period is 7.87 inches.

From the narrow perspective of a grape-lover: That’s a lot of thirsty vines.

Did I say narrow? I meant it. Obviously, so much more is at stake than delicious fermented grape beverages. Several species of fish, including salmon and steelhead populations, are at risk. Farmers’ livelihoods are on the line. Worse, the wealthy could end up washing faces with Evian, like that reporter tweeting from a crappy hotel in Sochi.

As usual, the less-affluent would be screwed.

What are folks in the wine biz thinking on the topic of drought?

One of my favorite Sierra Foothills winemakers, Ted Bechard has a plan for this season’s challenges, which includes savvy pruning around the vernal equinox and earlier-than-usual irrigation.

When I talked to him, Bechard was in his winery, putting foil tops and labels on bottles. Rain was drizzling over his small vineyard in Somerset, Calif., about an hour east of Sacramento.

“We’re still quite a ways behind,” Bechard says. “But it’s not unlike this area for us to get some rain in April and May. We may make up the difference at that point.”

Like many others in the wine industry, he’s thinking that 2014 might not be the most-prolific year for grapes. But with the generous harvests in 2012 and 2013, California’s not going to run out of wine anytime soon. Unless some unforeseen new demand kicks in, the sizable wine inventory at many California wineries should be sufficient, says Ben Drake, president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association

“We’ve come off two good years,” Drake says. “I think we’re going to be in good shape.”

Drake’s in a good position to know. He runs Drake Enterprises, a farm-management company that handles avocado- and citrus-farming, as well as vineyards. He’s also on the state’s Drought Task Force.

Drake attended the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in late January in Sacramento and drought was absolutely on the agenda. Farmers are worried, and rightfully so. Northern California’s water supplies are on-stream, from rivers to reservoirs—and that requires government officials to make hard choices about who gets water and when. Sound like a political football? Yeah. Stay tuned.

Drake notes that Southern California wineries are in the enviable position of having the chock-full-o’-water man-made Diamond Valley Lake. The 800,000-acre-foot offstream reservoir near Hemet contains the Colorado River harvest. Between Diamond Lake and other water resources for Southern California, Drake predicts that 2014 won’t be a problem.

But 2015? That’s another story.

Here’s something for winos to appreciate: When it comes to efficient use of water, wine grapes are much better than other popular Southern California crops. Growing wine grapes requires less than half the water needed to grow most citrus trees, and about one-fourth of the water required for avocados.

Let them eat wine!

Drake suggests that the governor’s suggestion for Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent is an important step toward change. We need to evaluate how we live and what we grow—rethinking luxuries like lawns and landscaping, for starters.

“Realizing the climate is changing, we’re going to have to look at a new pattern for what we’re doing in our households—and by changing crops,” Drake says.

I was heartened to read that the state government plans to lead the way on efficient water use, turning off decorative fountains and not washing government vehicles as often. Those moves are mostly for show, true. A bigger water-saver will come from not irrigating highway vegetation. That saves 6 billion gallons of water annually, as much as a year’s supply of water for a city of 30,000.

At Bechard’s winery in Somerset, winemaker Ted reminds me it’s too early to predict what the year will bring.

“Who knows?” he says, “Maybe it will sort itself out and be a wonderful year.”


Did I mention a prolific wine supply? Here’s a chance to taste it all: The Temecula Valley’s World of Wines Barrel Tasting Weekend runs Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2 with barrel-tastings and more exciting shin-diggery at 35 wineries along Rancho California and DePortola Roads in Temecula. Tickets are $99, with various discounts. And for much less than the price of a DUI attorney, you can hire a VIP shuttle or wine tour guide to drive you around. For more information, visit www.temeculawines.org/events/index.php?events_id=51.

Published in Wine

“California has a climate which is not well suited for growing grapes to make the finest wines. There are rather too many years when the sun scorches the grapes, so that the wine lacks the finest flavor.”

—Excerpt from dog-eared copy of Wines and Spirits of the World (1958), read by Temecula winemaker Phil Baily.

The sunset sparkled rosé over the rolling fields of grapes west of Callaway Vineyard and Winery

Matt Russell, offsite events manager for Lorimar Vineyards and Winery, poured me Lorimar’s 2010 Syrah. In the waning light, the wine appeared inky and luscious—a dark contrast to Frangipani Winery’s well-rounded 2010 Cabernet Franc, which I’d enjoyed at a nearby table.

Lorimar and Frangipani, relative newcomers to the Temecula Valley, were two of 35 wineries pouring at Crush 2013, the apex of California Wine Month festivities in Temecula, on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The valley had cooled since I’d arrived with Independent editor Jimmy Boegle to meet and drink with local winemakers before the larger taste-fest began. In the Coachella Valley, temps reached 108 on Saturday. In the lush green wine-growing region a mere 66-mile drive west—only 100.

Callaway’s patio was ringed with dim round lamps and flickering candles. Canadian singer-songwriter Michael LeClerc performed, silhouetted against the night sky.

The major attraction: bottles of reds on table after table. Whites and rosés chilled in bowls of ice. Sparkling wine. Sweet wine. Dry wine. Wine redolent with the Temecula terroir, flavor derived from the area’s earth, air and water.

Longtime Temecula winemakers have faced hard times. In the 1990s, area grapes were infested by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which spread Pierce’s disease. Thousands of acres were lost.

Now, the area’s now been re-tooled into this—with several hundred wine-lovers swirling and sipping, contemplating what one earlier speaker had called “the world in the glass.”

Since I had a designated driver, I was in Sniff the Cap heaven.

Speaking of caps, corks and things related to closure, the topic of synthetics came up during the winemakers’ panel discussion.

Temecula wine pioneer Phil Baily, of Baily Vineyard and Winery, argued that synthetic corks give wines consistency and avoid any chance of cork taint.

He’d brought along Baily’s 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Estate Clone 7 Cab). The wine is a deep garnet color. No heavy tannins, which can be astringent.

“None of that puckering,” Baily said, “which I personally can’t stand.”

Baily read to the audience from a worn and politely condescending paperback book, Wines and Spirits of the World (1958): “The difficulty is merely that in the Californian climate the finest varieties do not give of their best.”

We laughed.

When Baily started growing grapes in Temecula, he encountered similar skepticism. By the 1980s, people were lauding Northern California wines. But Temecula? Never.

“Be careful what you read from the experts,” Baily said.

Callaway winemaker Craig Larson told us he was pleased to be living somewhere warmer than Washington state, where he began his career in wine.

“I had a passion to get south and make wine,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

Larson said wine-clubbers and fans sometimes treat him, well, like a god. He actually seems quite soft-spoken.

“It’s just wine,” he understated.

Boegle and I both liked Callaway’s 2009 Calliope Red, a blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and counoise. Boegle dug this wine so much that I had to finish his taste so he wouldn’t be tempted to drink more. (He had offered to drive in exchange for drinks later within walking distance of his home.)

“It’s just wine.”

Nick Palumbo, from the Palumbo Family Winery, served a 2010 Sangiovese, joking about its 15.6 percent of alcohol.

“I made this wine before I started going gray,” he said.

Palumbo credited grape-growing success to “pure luck” and a prescient dude named Catfish, who’d long ago planted cabernet franc and merlot on the acreage that Palumbo acquired.

“Those were just the right grapes for the site,” Palumbo said. The winery just released its 2010 Estate “Catfish Vineyard” Merlot.

Palumbo and his family live on the estate. This lets him micro-manage his micro-climates and introduce wine to his children at an early age.

One night, he said, his daughter had been watching the grown-ups do some blending and tasting.

“And I handed a glass to my daughter, who is 8, and I said, ‘What do you smell?’ With a real dead-serious look, she took the glass and swirled it.”

Then she looked up at her dad. “It smells like grapes,” she said.

Also on the panel was Ben Drake, a longtime Temecula wine consultant who runs a farm-management company that oversees vineyards and avocado farms.

He said that his biggest challenge is finding enough workers to pick fruit. He called for the need to legalize labor. Hand-picked grapes are superior to those harvested by expensive machines, because people tend to differentiate between grapes, mice and lizards. Machines aren’t as picky.

Dave Fox, Saturday’s panel moderator and a partner at Touring and Tasting magazine, noted that he’s been impressed over the years with Temecula’s cooperative winemaking community. “There’s a camaraderie here,” he said, “a sense of pride in the region.”

The legendary Joe Hart of Hart Winery planted his first acre of grapes in Temecula back in 1974. On Saturday, he introduced us to his 2011 Mourvedre Cruz Way Vineyard, which smelled of ripe juicy raspberries glazed with caramels.

Hart said he’s pleased with the prospects of the 2013 vintage.

“It’s been a terrific year,” Hart said. “Expect outstanding wines.”

Because she enjoys the fruits of hard-working winemakers’ labor, Deidre Pike feels blissful and rested during crush season, aka September, aka California Wine Month, during which the Temecula Winegrowers’ Sip Passport gets you tasting flights at four area wineries for $35. Visit www.temeculawines.org/events for more information.

Published in Wine