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Grapes: The Hog In The (Dry) Stream

“Perimeter lines and bulldozers.” —Anderson Valley Fire Chief Andres Avila explaining one of the adjustment’s firefighters will have to make to fight fires under drought conditions.

“We’ll plant different species.” —Anderson Valley gardener Taunia Green, explaining one of the adjustments she will make in gardening under drought conditions.

“We’re using more paper plates and making sure our dishwasher is always completely full for dishwashing.” —Local restaurateur explaining one of the many adjustments she will make in restaurant operations under drought conditions.

“We’re sharing water.” —Local Mexican woman explaining how she and her neighbors deal with private wells that go dry.

“I don’t know.” —Local grape grower’s answer to the question of what adjustments he will make under drought conditions. (An exhaustive internet search for news articles in the last two months about water conservation by vintners during the drought only produced a few passing mentions of building more vineyard ponds.)

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According to the Mendocino County Ag Commissioner’s Crop Report for 2012 (the last year for which a report has been prepared), grapes went from 57,000 tons worth $71.5 million in 2011 to 71,000 tons worth $102 million in 2012 — although Mendocino County vineyard acreage was nearly flat at almost 17,000 acres. Tons per acre went up from 3.4 to 4.2, an increase of almost 25%.

Accordingly, the total gross agricultural value for all commodities produced in Mendocino County in 2012 was $216,550,651, an increase of 24% over the 2011 value of $174,492,400. The leading agricultural commodity continues to be wine grapes, which posted a record value of over $102 million, up from $71.5 million, for an increase of over 40%.

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The average rainfall in Ukiah is about 37 inches per year. The driest year on record (the only times that total rainfall in Ukiah was under 20 inches since WWII) were the winters of 1975-76 (18.75 inches) and 1976-77 (14.20).)

In 2011 Ukiah got well-below 23.5 inches of rain. In 2012-13 Ukiah got only 11 inches, the second lowest annual rainfall in recorded history. So far in the “rainy season” of 2013-14, Ukiah has received less than six inches of rain and there’s no significant rain in the forecast for the rest of the season.

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The local wine industry tells us that they already conserve water by using drip irrigation instead of overhead spraying, and that drip irrigation uses less water than overhead spraying.*

But “conservation” can be deceiving.

Drip irrigation or no, grape growers continued to build more ponds — bigger and bigger ponds — to irrigate and frost protect more and more acres of grapevines. Although most of the water rights applications for these ponds say they’re for “frost protection,” not drip irrigation, the ponds — small lakes actually (check the empty one just north of Hopland on the east side of 101) — are obviously for both frost protection and drip irrigation.

As long as you keep the size of your vineyard lake below 50 acre-feet, no permit of any kind from any government agency is required. And 50-acre feet is huge, much bigger than, say, the landmark Duck Pond south of Mendocino. (The three large ponds accompanying the infamous Philoville Vineyards on Highway 128 between Boonville and Philo total less than 40 acre-feet.)

Fewer than 50 acre-feet, you’re supposed to obtain a permit exemption from the County's Planning and Building Department declaring that you want to build something less than an inland sea, a pond containing less than 50 acre-feet of our most precious resource. As long as you tell the Ukiah bureaucrats it’s less than 50 acre-feet, they rubberstamp your exemption.

Nobody checks to see what size you actually dig or how much water goes into your pond or where the water in your little lake comes from.

Technically, you're not supposed to store water pumped directly from a river or stream (“riparian” water) on or beside your property, and you're not supposed to build your pond-lake in the middle of a stream, or dam up the stream so that you can make a small pond to pump out of. But once the water is in the lake, all you have to do is say, on the off chance anyone asks is, “Oh, that's run-off,” and who's to prove otherwise?

Then there’s the myth that drip irrigation saves water. Does it really conserve water? Is it even “irrigation”?

You may have noticed that most of the newer vineyards going in these days are what can be called “wall-to-wall” vineyards. Every plantable patch of vineyard dirt has vines on it. Sometimes the vines are even on the vineyard’s boundary fence.

Older vineyards, both in the US and in Europe (as indicated in the Wikipedia excerpt below) were dry farmed. They were not planted in narrow rows on every possible acre. Many of the old vineyards are still dry farmed without any irrigation because, as vines naturally mature, they develop long taproots to take their water from deeper in the ground as they need it.

If you jam your vines into every nook and cranny of your vineyard to maximize your yield the vines' taproots will compete for available underground water and none will get enough.

Solution: drip irrigation.

A UC Davis viticulture and enology professor named Larry Williams has changed the face of viticulture in recent years; and his ideas have been widely accepted. Williams recommends that drip irrigation be used not to conserve water but to maximize yield while controlling the growth of the vines with injections of chemical-laced water.

“If you're a grape grower, you want to have that vine dependent on what you do so you can manipulate them,” Williams says. “Since the vine is getting most of its water from the drip system, then a grape grower has greater control on how much water the vine gets.”

Williams' recommendations have become standard industry practice in recently planted large vineyards, making the new grapevines dependent on the drip. (And if you’re thinking that it sounds like the vines are in an intensive care unit, you’re not far off.)

Using Williams' method, shallow-rooted “riparian rootstock” is densely planted with specially developed plant-starts to thrive off shallow, not deep taproots like old-style vines.

With shallow roots, vineyard managers can plant lots more grapevines per acre because the high-density vines in industrial vineyards don't need taproots — they are watered with pond water and the ripening process can be carefully manipulated with the amount of water and chemicals applied.

Vineyard managers can also apply special growth accelerators, as well as pesticides and insecticides via the pond-water dripped on the vines.

Congressman Mike Thompson in his vineyard.  Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Representative Mike Thompson, founder of the Congressional Wine Caucus, visits his vineyard in Lake County, California. In a January 2010 letter, Thompson urged the chief of the State Water Resources Control Board to reconsider a proposal that would curtail the ability of vineyards to use river water to feed their extensive sprinkler systems. Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

In Europe, where most grapes have been dry-farmed on very old vineyards, 450-500 vines per acre are common. The new vineyard thinking is that the gracious, old-style vineyards are quaintly romantic, but not very money-making.

Williams' high-density, water-intensive, chemicalized enables the neo-sons of the soil to cram up to 2500 vines onto each acre, producing much greater tonnages of grapes and paying off their vineyard development loans sooner.

The modern production vineyard makes a lot of money unless — 1. There's a grape glut, which happens every few years pushing marginal (i.e., low density) growers out of business. Or 2. There’s a drought and the huge amounts of water necessary to jack up the yields or protect the grapes from frost isn’t available.

Shallow riparian rootstock is also known to be much more vulnerable to disease such as phylloxera because shallow-rooted vines are right at the depth where the deadly nematode likes them. More pesticides are required to fight off the dread nemmie.

The huge new vineyard ponds that have cropped up all over Mendocino County — which taken together capture more creek water than a large dam would — are an essential element of the wall-to-wall grape plantings in the recently developed industrial vineyards. They are not just a benign way of storing water for frost protection.

In fact, these new vineyards are designed not to conserve water but to require much more water — water that has become scarce everywhere on the Northcoast in the parched year of 2013-2014.

If you can produce wine grapes with pond water like you can keep an ICU patient alive with a drip, you can plant more grapes, on steeper slopes, and in areas with dryer climates, demanding even greater amounts of water.

Drip irrigation, once thought of as a form of water conservation, has become the opposite — a cheap way to use cheap water to produce more grapes which are plumped up with more water in them to jack up their tonnage, as indicated by the huge increase in Mendocino County grape tonnage from 2011 to 2012.

And there's almost no regulation or restriction on any of it because, 1. Mendocino County has no gaging ordinance as recommended by a County Grand Jury a few years ago, and 2. even though the product being generated is nothing more than another of the expensive intoxicants that Americans can't get enough of, industrial wine grape growing is considered to be “agriculture,” just like apples or potatoes.

Is it any surprise that today’s grape growers can only say, “I don’t know” when asked how they’ll adjust to a drought?


* (Wikipedia) — “Irrigation in viticulture is the process of applying extra water in the cultivation of grapevines. It is considered both controversial and essential to wine production. In the physiology of the grapevine, the amount of available water affects photosynthesis and hence growth, as well as the development of grape berries. While climate and humidity play important roles, a typical grapevine needs 25-35 inches of water a year, occurring during the spring and summer months of the growing season, to avoid stress. A vine that does not receive the necessary amount of water will have its growth altered in a number of ways; some effects of water stress (particularly, smaller berry size and somewhat higher sugar content) are considered desirable by some wine grape growers.

“In many Old World wine regions, natural rainfall is considered the only source for water that will still allow the vineyard to maintain its terroir characteristics. The practice of irrigation is viewed by critics as unduly manipulative with the potential for detrimental wine quality due to high yields that can be artificially increased with irrigation. It has been historically banned by the European Union's wine laws, though in recent years individual countries (such as Spain) have been loosening their regulations and France's wine governing body, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), has also been reviewing the issue.

“In very dry climates that receive little rainfall, irrigation is considered essential to any viticultural prospects. Many New World wine regions such as Australia and California regularly practice irrigation in areas that couldn't otherwise support viticulture. Advances and research in these wine regions (as well as some Old World wine regions such as Israel), have shown that potential wine quality could increase in areas where irrigation is kept to a minimum and managed. The main principle behind this is controlled water stress, where the vine receives sufficient water during the budding and flowering period, but irrigation is then scaled back during the ripening period so that the vine then responds by funneling more of its limited resources into developing the grape clusters instead of excess foliage. If the vine receives too much water stress, then photosynthesis and other important processes such as nutrient storage could be impacted with the vine essentially shutting down. The availability of irrigation means that if drought conditions emerge, sufficient water can be provided for the plant so that the balance between water stress and development is kept to optimal levels.


  1. Jim Armstrong January 29, 2014

    From above:
    “In 2012-13 Ukiah got only 11 inches, the second lowest annual rainfall in recorded history.”
    I think the total was more like 28″ or 76% of normal.
    Yesterday’s UDJ gives the rainfall to this date last year as almost 24″

  2. Melissa March 25, 2014

    Do you have sources for the information you provided in this article available? I would like to research this issue further and seem to find only sources that support the other side. Thank you.

  3. Mark Scaramella Post author | March 26, 2014

    Note to Melissa: Send me an off-website email at with specific questions from the piece and I’ll see what I can do. I’m obviously not going to provide a full bibliography or footnotes. You are correct that most of what you’ll find on-line is wine-industry propaganda.

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