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Monday, February 1, 2010

Water Everywhere: John Haggard's WINE BANTER

Water Everywhere by John Haggard
Despite the abundant welcome winter rains we’re experiencing, the truth is that we have to plan for a sustainable future, one where we can live in harmony with our beautiful surroundings, River and the endangered Coho and waning Steelhead, and no matter how much it pours, we just don’t have enough water.

The past few years, I’ve been asked a repeated question, for which I’ve always hesitated to become too involved in for fear of alienating grape-growers, winemakers and all those persons who rely on our scarce water: what can winegrowers do as part of the solution for Sonoma County’s future?

Dry-farming is a method of keeping vines alive over the first three to five years with minimum water, while they develop tap roots capable of reaching a depth where there is moisture year-round. One great example of a “dry farmed” vineyard is “Precious Mountain” located in Cazadero, owned by Lyndon and Donnie Schatzberg. The vineyard produces much smaller clusters, however, with more concentrated flavors. The prestigious Williams Selyem winery exults this vineyard designate pinot noir as one of their finest examples of what Sonoma Coast pinot noir can be.

About twenty years ago, while working for Silks Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, I met a gentleman who had just returned from Oregon State and was preparing to leave the following morning to go to Napa Valley. The subject foremost in his mind was the prevalence of “phylloxera” which was consuming rootstock across the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of this pest, “phylloxera” and he explained how the demise of these vineyards would cause a mass re-planting onto rootstock resistant to phylloxera such as the Georges de Latour: this meant the end of numerous dry-farmed vineyards at the time.

Then, let’s fast-forward to just seven years ago when I witnessed two vineyards that had been dry-farmed and were in the middle of being uprooted for no other reason than to chase a trend of planting pinot noir. Whereas this has happened numerous times since the late 1960’s, it was the first time that I felt a passion for having lost a dry-farmed vineyard which would be replaced by one requiring irrigation during the hot summer. I was also sentimentally attached to these vineyards, as it had been the first winery I’d worked at some twenty-five years before, and I always found myself returning to the winery to try the latest release from these old vines.

This is when I really started paying attention to so many lost dry-farmed vineyards, and actually started mourning them like a lost a friend. It’s approximately the same time I read an article in a national magazine about the US’s most polluted rivers and, to my horror, the Russian River was listed as the sixteenth most polluted river in the country. As a life-long fisherman, I recognized that the trend was no longer sustainable for uprooting these older vineyards, essentially wiping away years of vineyard growth that had become water independent, in exchange for new thirsty vineyards.

While dry farming is a way to mitigate the use of water in viticulture, another practice putting a heavy burden on our river is the use of water for frost protection – perhaps the return of “kerosene pots” in the vineyards as used in the past, to keep vineyards from freezing…

Mounting lawsuits aim to force the hand of Sonoma County’s water agencies which oversee the use of water for frost protection and pending laws are going to change the rules when it comes to farming. In the coming years and the loss of the ability to use water for frost protection, we’re certain to see price swings in wines from year to year.

Small family farmers will shoulder the biggest burden with new restrictions. I do acknowledge that answers are not simple, but just as we can all make a difference for our planet by changing light bulbs and driving less, our winegrowers have the ability to adapt to more sustainable practices – I hope more of them do.

John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, The Sonoma Wine & Cheese Market in Monte Rio, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open 11am – 7pm, closed only on Wednesdays.