Grape growers face a trade-off: if they want the best flavor they use as little water as possible, but cutting down on water means they can’t grow as many grapes. That means they have to sell fewer bottles.
Matt Parish, chief winemaker at Napa Valley-based Naked Wines.com, says low-end wine often comes from grapes grown in mass quantity in the San Joaquin Valley.
“They’re in the hottest area," said Parish. "The crop level that’s carried on those vines is typically a lot higher so that the price can be brought down, and all of that requires water.”
Some locally supplied irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley are delivering no more than 30 percent of normal water, according to Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
An upside to the drought: More flavorful wine
High-end wines benefit from less water, so Napa-based winemaker Stephanie Honig says this could turn out to be a banner year for California’s top labels.
“If you’re planning a crop more for quality than quantity, you’re going to want more limited water," said Honing. "As the vines are stressed and are working really hard to find their water, we’re going to have higher concentration, and berries are going to have good quality.”
Ron Lopp, communications manager for the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, which represents the state's 5,900 growers, agrees.
“The berries have been smaller, but the flavors – the intensity of the sugars – have been greater because of the drought," said Lopp.
Lopp expects this year’s harvest will be similar to last year's, which yielded about four million tons of grapes.
“Growers have still been able to pull from rivers and reservoirs and groundwater," said Lopp.
But he says if the drought continues, next year's crop yields could be down significantly because groundwater is not being replenished.
“If El Niño comes through, drought year five could be a very, very dire situation,” said Lopp.