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Concerns Mount at Vineyards as Historic California Drought Persists

Following a drought State of Emergency issued for California in December, worries continue to mount over the economic implications of the region's long-lasting dry weather, especially for the wine industry.

"It's giving us ulcers," Family Owner of Husch Vinyards, located in California's Anderson Valley, Zac Robinson said.

While grape vines are currently in their dormant stage and do not have any specific water needs, a drought in combination with warmer-than-normal temperatures can tease the into waking up earlier. After waking up, the vines will bud, creating an even bigger challenge for growers as the potential for frost still looms.

"One of the ways that grape growers mitigate against frost is doing overhead watering," Executive Director of Santa Barbara Vineyards Morgan McLaughlin said. "If there is no water or there is restricted use on water then there is less potential frost protection."

During this time of year, growers have their most intense water need and can use more water overnight in April then they would use for an entire summer's worth of irrigation, according to Robinson.

Due to the lack of water resources throughout the state, growers are faced with difficult questions about what to do if they will have only enough water to frost protect or irrigate but not both.

"It's one of those catch-22s," Robinson said. "If you get the vines through the frost without any serious damage but have no water to irrigate then what was the point? If you save water to irrigate and they take frost damage then what was the point in that? There is no good answer to that question."

In addition, the lack of rain will increase the salt content in the soil, as fall rains usually wash away some salt concentration. A high salt concentration creates a toxic environment for grape vine roots, making it hard for them to absorb nutrients and thus produce a good crop, according to Owner and Consultant of Foxx Viticulture Prudy Foxx.

"Many people will probably experience some type of reduced crop just because their grape vines weren't able to eat last fall and the spring rains we are getting now are not making up for that," Foxx said.

Luckily for growers, even a reduced crop this year may not have an enormous economic impact right away because the 2012 and 2013 growing seasons were phenomenal years for the California wine industry.

Due to the nature of wine, the grapes harvested in 2014 will not go on the market until at least 2016, creating a time lapse that may enable growers to make up for this year's reduced crop.

"It's always two or three years down the road before you are dealing with that year's harvest so even though the impact of the weather is so significant it doesn't really translate for several years," Foxx said. "Essentially consumers are drinking the weather of three years ago."

Since the 2012 and 2013 harvests were almost picture perfect, according to Foxx, this year may in fact be a buyer's market, as wineries will likely bring out wines that haven't been seen in a while and wines from those two seasons to stock the shelves.

"There will be some really great wines out in the next few years because of the 2012 and 2013 seasons and that's something everyone can look forward to," Foxx said.

While this may aid in glossing over what is likely to be a poor crop this season, the real threat from this year's drought will occur next year if conditions do not improve.

"It will really be a crisis for us next year," Monterey Pacific President and Founder Steve McIntyre said. "What we will ultimately do is farm the varieties of the most value, not farm the rest and just try to keep the vines alive and conserve water."

Even though some rain may fall over portions of California in the coming days, a change large enough to reverse the drought won't be coming anytime soon due to the drought's longevity and this only fuel's growers concerns.

"Unlike Coca-Cola, we can only make our product once a year and we are dependent on an agricultural product, our grapes, so if any part of the system breaks such as water, bad weather, insect problems, etc., that immediately impacts a year's worth of production," Robinson said.

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