Dry farming winegrapes relies on residual soil moisture to meet the water requirements for grape vine growth and berry development. Even in California’s dry Mediterranean climate, the water retained in soils from winter rains can be sufficient to support grape production throughout the growing season without supplemental irrigation.
The dry farming of wine grapes has a long history of use throughout France, Italy, and Spain, where many vineyards are required to be dry-farmed by law. In California, dry farming was widely practiced until the 1970’s, when drip irrigation was introduced. Today, although less common, dry-farmed vineyards can be found around the state in areas that receive sufficient rainfall.
Scruffy Hill, Tablas Creek Vineyard
Benefits of Dry Farming
Dry farming techniques can improve grape and wine quality. Many growers have said that they trade quantity for quality when dry farming. Although dry-farmed vineyards may yield less than irrigated vineyards, the fruit that is produced often has more concentrated flavors and a deeper expression of terroir. Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles believes that their dry-farmed berries are essential to the balance and expression of their wines. Read about this in Jason Haas’ Blog.
Dry farming can also have significant positive impacts on the environment and improve the sustainability of vineyards. By not irrigating, dry farmers reduce the water footprint of the vineyard. Frank Leeds at Frog’s Leap in Napa Valley indicates that he is saving a minimum of 16,000 gallons of water an acre a year by dry farming his vineyards, compared to those that only lightly irrigate. If vineyards can conserve fresh water, not only will they be contributing to water conservation, but also reducing their dependency on a highly demanded resource, particularly in areas of groundwater overdraft.
Competition over surface and ground water resources is occurring in many areas of California. Currently in Napa and Sonoma counties, vineyards and other agriculture are working to reduce water use and runoff to maintain stream flows necessary for endangered salmonids. In areas such as Paso Robles, the ground water basin is currently being over drafted at an unsustainable rate leading to declining water levels. To combat this, the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Management Plan includes plans for increasing the water use efficiency of agriculture, including crop irrigation monitoring. In Sonoma, the Sonoma County Water Agency has been working with vineyards to conserve water and protect the Russian River Basin.
As the population continues to grow and the climate changes, competition between urban, agriculture, and ecological water demand is expected to increase. Grape growers are in a unique position because a reduction in water use may actually lead to a higher quality crop while protecting the environment.