In the Mouth a Desert: Dry Farming in Santa Barbara County

June 2, 2014

In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard.  Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated.  By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge.  Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated.  While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme.  This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.

The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different.  At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman.  “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night.  The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.”  Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County.  “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen.  “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.”  Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.

Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor.  When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised.  As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer.  This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases.  Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing.  “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard.  The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says.  “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine.  The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines.  These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”

Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous.  “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states.  “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy.  Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”

Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing.  “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen.  “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”

With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible.  “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says.  “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall.  We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May.  We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.”  Wathen has also had to shift his approach.  “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen.  “You always need to be thinking about next year.  Adjustment farming is the key.  The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”

So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass?  Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject.  “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman.  “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop.  Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.”  Wathen has a different take.  “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit.  Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”

As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about.  There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied.  While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart.  “Balanced vines give balanced wines.  Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman.  And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement.  I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in Santa Barbara County’s future, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.

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