Spring typically marches in funky weather (especially here in the Seattle area). March brought us not surprising announcements that Washington and Oregon will be facing drought this year. Drought has plagued California for the last four years. Even with current government restrictions, California is facing a losing water battle. In the agriculture, drought can be devastating. In wine agriculture it needs to be planned for to minimize the impact. Why? Vines love stress- but wine makers… not so much!
Washington’s warm winter brought us rain, and very little snow packs to feed our rivers. Governor Jay Inslee requested emergency federal funds focused on agricultural business. One of the most difficult patterns with drought years in the PNW is spring frost. These frosts impact bud break and growth. Careful planning through selection of vineyard sites, delayed pruning and if lucky frost protection. Most Washington wine makers are patiently waiting for Mothers Day, the benchmark for warmer safe weather in the vineyards.
In Oregon, pinot noir prefers cooler climates. Temperatures ranging in the upper 50’s or lower 60’s are ideal. Frost and early rain are definite issues, but since Oregon is coastal the burden to splitting fruit. With a different perspective of planning, some wineries have invested their Oregon vineyards in warmer weather varietals with the theory that wineries will continue to move north as California grows arid.
For California’s four year drought, it’s the small producers of inexpensive wine that are hit hardest. These small producers are not necessarily the bulk producers that we associate with California’s mass wine production. Hot weather is great for boutique wines that bring out more diverse flavors and can plan for smaller production and ask for higher prices. The drought will run out the small family producers that are not invested into smaller production and cult pricing. As irrigation begins to impact production, especially with a water restrictions, success will fall upon those that can wean themselves away from irrigation practices. Solutions are found through vinification practices. Pioneers such as Frogs Leap use old world practices. Dry farming is the process of stressing vines so that their roots grow deep so that they can source their water rather than irrigation.
2015 will usher in full bodied, rich wines. Vineyard management will be telling of the quality of wines that we see in the PNW and California. Trends toward more extreme weathers will keep our wine makers on their toes with plenty of stories to share.
Happy Earth Day!
Sommelier, food+wine writer