No, the Drought Isn't the End of California Wine

Posted June 08, 2015

Giovanni Sabree


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With California having entered its fourth year of one of the worst droughts in recorded history, its lasting effects on the wine industry are becoming more and more real. Although those die-hard vines continue to flower despite the harsh conditions, many are worrying about our top U.S producer. Before we all go into a manic-frenzy over the current conditions and the reported speculations of “what this could potentially mean for the wine-industry”, let’s briefly take a closer and calmer look.

As the drought began to set its tone, the epic 2012 vintage was birthed and all was good. Some of the best wines that the west coast have ever seen were produced, and delivered intense unique flavors that, in a sense, pay homage and tribute to the ‘historic drought’. The lack of water (or in industry terms the “stress”) caused the vines to dig deeper into the earth; some reaching as far as 100 feet deep, extracting nutrients and water from the sub-soils, and delivering smaller berries and smaller yields. Instinctively the skins on the smaller berries grow very thick, concentrating a sugary must that in turn creates extraordinary flavors that would be otherwise unattainable during a wetter year. From the 2012 blockbuster vintage to the present 2014 vintage, the quality of wine has been consistent as the weather conditions have not changed much for most of the wine cultivating regions.

When you take a closer look at the different regions in California, a thought might run through your mind saying maybe it’s not that bad after all. Most of our favorite appellations are located in northern California which actually reported above normal precipitation for the 2015 season. The region suffering the most is southern California, which is home to some of the most high volume, mass-production wine regions. “When the reservoir level is expressed as percentiles, the reservoirs in southern California are worse off than those in the north,” said a NOAA report in the May 2015 issue.

So maybe the drought isn’t the end of California wine as we know it. That said, there are still ramifications, especially for value-driven, mass-produced wine. This could mean a rise in the cost of your two-buck Chuck, but considering the fact that Americans, on average, tend to purchase bottles above the $10 price point, it’s not likely to affect anybody reading this particular article. Surface water as well a ground water is extremely low in this region but with the newly enforced 25% water use reduction mandate in effect, I am sure the region will pull through with the help of the state.

When nature aggressively forces itself upon society, it is natural to panic over what we cannot control, but with technology and organization we can try to mitigate the effects. Currently, along rationing, Californians are setting up desalination plants to convert salt water from the ocean into freshwater. Hey, maybe there is no need to fret after all.

Giovanni Sabree is a wine buyer and consultant for Wine Library