Wine grape growers brace for drought

03/09/2014 4:46 PM

05/02/2014 3:52 PM

Modesto-area wine grape growers, who have enjoyed good times in the past few years, might have to dig in to endure the drought.

Literally. One piece of advice is to plunge a moisture sensor into the soil before irrigating, to be sure that the scarce water is truly needed that day.

“I’d go down 3 or 4 feet,” said Maxwell Norton, a farm adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension. “I’m interested in what’s happening down there.”

He took part in a meeting held Thursday at a vineyard west of Keyes by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association. Its members help supply the region’s wineries, including some of the world’s largest.

The California industry has been thriving, thanks to strong demand around the world and bumper grape crops the past two years. This has meant more dollars per ton for grape growers and plenty of work for the thousands employed at wineries and related companies. Wine drinkers have had plenty of choices at various price levels.

The 2014 harvest is almost certain to drop because of water restrictions, which range from mild in a few places to drastic in others.

“We’re going to manage our water scheduling more,” said grower Miguel Garcia, who hosted the meeting at his 25-acre vineyard. “It’s going to be a challenge with only 20 inches of water.”

He was referring to the allotment from the Turlock Irrigation District for the irrigation season scheduled to start March 27. He also has groundwater to help get his grapes, of the tempranillo and malvasia varieties, through the summer.

The Modesto Irrigation District to the north is allocating 18 inches. The Merced Irrigation District to the south has not decided, but the amount likely will be much less because of very low reservoir storage. In many other parts of the Valley, the federal and state canal systems project zero water for farmers.

Grapevines have one advantage over many fruit and nut crops. They can survive for years without any irrigation, thanks to deep roots that seek out traces of water in the soil. “They don’t die easily,” Norton said.

But the vines can have greatly reduced yields in a year when water is in short supply, and this could keep growers from benefiting from the overall strong market.

Norton said this is a good time for growers to take out vineyards nearing the end of their productive lives so more water can go to younger plantings. He also urged growers to reduce fertilizer use, to prevent excessive leaf growth that sucks up much of the water.

Grape growers already are making widespread use of drip irrigation, which reduces waste by directing the water to the roots.

Even in years with adequate water, growers like to put their vines under a little water stress to improve the grape quality. Norton said they should be careful this year, because a summer heat spike could slow the development of the sugars. That’s what turns into alcohol once the grapes are fermenting at wineries.

Peterangelo Vallis, executive director of the grower group, said demand has boomed in part because of the weak dollar, which makes U.S. wine cheaper to foreign buyers.

“Overall, we can’t complain,” he said, “but the water thing is problematic.”

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service