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How Anderson Valley’s Roederer Estate is dealing with the drought

With the town of Mendocino trucking in water, we’re seeing the drought at its most dramatic. And it begs the question: Is the grape-growing region of Anderson Valley, just 20 miles southeast as the crow flies, suffering the same water woes?

Arnaud Weyrich, senior vice president and winemaker of Anderson Valley’s Roederer Estate, said while he doesn’t need to truck in water, he is experiencing a water shortage this year. Scrambling to protect his grapes has been “exhausting.”

Sitting on the winery’s patio, in front of a manzanita tree with a blue jay perched on a branch, the winemaker explained his water conundrum. The winery in Philo specializes in sparkling wine, producing bubbly with the traditional methode champenoise.

Weyrich said he deployed most of his water resources in reserve for frost protection, forgoing irrigation for most of his 620 acres of vineyards this growing season. What’s surprising is how much water is used for frost protection.

“Anderson Valley is prone to frost, and overhead sprinklers are the most effective way to protect the vineyards from it,” Weyrich said.

The water coats the vines and turns into ice, protecting the buds and new shoots.

“Between March and May, there were three bad frost events and we used the sprinklers because they work every time,” Weyrich said.

There were six or seven additional “scary frost events,” but Weyrich said the winery didn’t turn on the sprinklers. Instead it relied on mobile wind machines to blow the warmer air down into the vineyards to keep frost from forming.

Asked if he suffered from sleepless nights, Weyrich said “yes” with a wry smile. “I would be lying if I said I’m in full control,” he added.

The 30-year average for rainfall from July 1 through June 30 has been 42 inches. But these last couple of years the drought has taken a toll, Weyrich said. From July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, the area received 19 inches of rainfall and just 17 inches the next year, he said.

Weyrich said the winery used roughly 46 million gallons of water in 2020 for frost protection and irrigation compared to approximately 3 million gallons of water in 2021.

“One way to use less water is to find more tools,” the winemaker said. “The more dedicated you are to finding other tools, the more you’ll find them.”

In addition to his sprinkler system, which covers 455 acres of vines and his four mobile wind machines, Weyrich’s toolbox includes decreasing a type of bacteria that puts plants at increased risk for frost damage.

Weyrich offered his vines to participate in tests focusing on the bacteria with Glenn McGourty at UC Davis Ag extension in Ukiah. “I volunteered to be a guinea pig so I could learn more about it,” he said.

Weyrich also employs:

Dry Farming: Vineyards that are dry-farmed forgo irrigation. Instead, the root systems of these vines are learning how to dig deeper for water.

Composting: Composting vineyards helps transition an irrigated vineyard into a dry-farmed one. The compost retains water, forcing the root system to search for water.

Biochar: Biochar is a carbon-rich dust that can be created from burning fallen limbs and trees on winery properties. This dust, when added to composts, is like a sponge, retaining water. This makes the compost even more effective in transitioning an irrigated vineyard into a dry-farmed one.

In the past, when rain was plentiful, Weyrich didn’t have to be so quick on his feet. A weave of French drains in the sandy and clay soils beneath the vineyards diverted the excess water to the winery’s seven ponds. With permits from the state, the winery can also tap into the water of area creeks. But Weyrich said the winery took very little water this year because the creeks had so little run off and the winery never uses well water for agriculture.

With a finite supply of water, Roederer keeps a keen eye on this precious resource. There are seven weather stations sending communiques every 10 minutes and middle-of-the-night alerts when necessary. Tabs are kept on temperature, humidity, wind, rainfall and intensity of sunshine.

While the drought has made winemaking an increasingly suspenseful game of chess, Weyrich said he’s still upbeat.

“You have to have a plan B and a plan C,” he said. “Nothing is perfect, but you try to hedge your bets.”

Asked if he’s an optimist in combating the drought, Weyrich didn’t hesitate.

“If you’re in agriculture,” he said, “you better be an optimist and you won’t give in without a fight.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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