Dry wine? Desert grapes offer drought aid

SACRAMENTO -- When it comes to the future of wine, Death Valley might have an edge over Napa Valley.

Wild grapes can grow in desert regions, a researcher said Wednesday, and their water-thrifty traits could be useful if California winemakers face reduced irrigation supplies.

That was among the topics discussed at the 13th annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which drew about 11,000 industry people over three days.

Water is always as issue in a state prone to droughts lasting years and -- if tree rings are to be believed -- decades. Water also could be lost to political decisions, such as protections for fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Then there's climate change, believed to be caused by the buildup of fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere. It could play havoc with the snow-fed canals that sustain vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere.

"If you're planting a vineyard now and you think you're going to have the same amount of water in 15 years as you do today, you're not thinking about it correctly," said Andy Walker, a viticulture professor at the University of California at Davis.

Walker told the gathering about his search for wild grapes in very dry places, including Death Valley and areas near Las Vegas. Their roots reach for springs and other pockets of water, allowing them to survive in the harsh conditions.

These vines don't produce large volumes of grapes, let alone fruit tasty enough for winemaking. Still, their genes might impart their drought resistance to commercial varieties via breeding.

Domestic vines already have some of that ability, the researchers said. Their roots tend to be 4 to 5 feet deep, allowing them to tap underground water when the surface is dry, said Larry Walker, another Davis professor.

"Grapevines are weeds," agreed Mike McCarthy, a researcher at the South Australia Research and Development Institute. "You can't kill them. We are now confident that grapevines are quite resistant to short-term reductions in irrigation."

McCarthy is looking at the effect of reduced water on vineyards in Australia, which is in the midst of a drought.

Many winemakers in California have reduced irrigation voluntarily, believing that too much water leads to bushy vines and lower-quality grapes. They irrigate on careful schedules and use other practices, such as pruning and thinning, to concentrate the flavor in the fruit.

In other words, there's more to this business than turning water into wine.

The water supply outlook is uncertain, but it's likely that California growers will need less per acre than in the past. And if they can pick up genetic advantages from places such as Death Valley, so much the better.

Perhaps someday, a Napa Valley winemaker will find room on the label to note Death Valley's contribution. At least on the dry wines.

As usual, the symposium featured the announcement of the state's Winery of the Year award, as chosen by industry consultant Jon Fredrikson.

He picked Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which produces in California and Washington state. Fredrikson cited its 25 percent growth in sales last year and its 244 percent gain in profits since 2000.

Fredrikson also listed about two dozen "hot" wineries and brands. The most mentions went to products from Barefoot Cellars, based in Sonoma County but owned by E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto. Fredrikson had praise as well for the Mirassou and Louis M. Martini brands, also owned by Gallo.

Three other big producers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley made the list -- Bronco Wine Co. near Ceres, DFV Wines (the new name for Delicato) near Manteca, and The Wine Group, whose holdings include Franzia Winery near Ripon.

McManis Family Vineyards, a smaller but growing company near Ripon, was deemed hot, too.

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