Severe drought forces one of Sonoma’s top Syrah vineyards out of wine production

Due to drought, one of Sonoma County’s top Syrah vineyards will not bear fruit this year.

The vines at Griffin’s Lair Vineyard in Petaluma are parched, owner John Flynn said. Unlike the typical lush, full, green canopies you expect to see at this time of year, as harvest approaches, the vines look haggard and weak. Some leaves are already turning brown. With no water available to give them, Flynn made the decision this week to drop the entire harvest, which in a good year would supply pinot noir and syrah grapes to eight wineries, including Pax and Spottswoode. This is the best way to ensure the survival of the crop, he said.

Cutting the bunches of grapes before they ripen means Flynn will have no income from the vineyard this year. “It really becomes a short-term economic question versus a longevity question,” Flynn said. In their thirsty state, the vines would have run out of too much energy trying to bring their grapes to full ripeness. “By dropping the fruit, we can improve carbohydrate retention in the vines and improve health for years to come,” Flynn said.

Or, to put it a little more bluntly: “The vine goes into survival mode,” said Pax Mahle of Pax Wines, who has been producing Syrah from Griffin’s Lair since 2002. “It’s like when a person is trapped in an avalanche, your body will stop sending blood to your ears and toes in order to keep your liver, heart and lungs functioning.” Getting rid of unnecessary appendages – the fruit – helps the vine to conserve its energy for its vital organs.

It’s a stark reminder that climate change is already having a fundamental impact on Wine Country.

Compared to other crops like almonds, grapes need relatively little water. Moreover, the effects of drought on California wines have not always been uniformly bad. In fact, in some ways they have been good. Although droughts tend to lead to lower crop yields, they have often led to high quality wines, as dry conditions can produce concentrated, flavorful grapes.

But the result at Griffin’s Lair this year would appear to refute any notion that chronic, severe droughts could coexist peacefully with California viticulture in the long term.

This is the second year in a row that Griffin’s Lair will not produce fruit due to weather-related issues. Last year, most of the grapes at Griffin’s Lair were marred by the smell of wildfire smoke, rendering them unusable. At the time, Flynn had no crop insurance; he has since secured it. The vineyard is a side business for him, not his sole source of income, so he’ll be fine, “but it’s a horrible reflection on the aggregate industry,” he said. “It’s impossible for most people to survive on negative income for two years.”

Ironically, what makes Griffin’s Lair such an ideal site for Syrah—rocky, sandy soils that drain water rather than hold it—is exactly what has compromised the harvest. “It’s this glorious soil to grow wine, just beautiful and full of minerals and all those things that we want,” Mahle said. Syrah is one of the hardiest grape varieties; stressful conditions, such as low water availability, often result in better wine.

It is therefore a testament to the severity of this drought that even these hardy plants could not withstand the dry conditions. Petaluma has received just under 7 inches of rain so far this year, compared to about 24 inches this time in 2019.

Griffin’s Lair has an irrigation system, unlike some dry-grown vineyards, which rely solely on rainfall for watering. These irrigation lines are fed from wells and ponds on the property, which are supposed to fill during the winter rains. Anticipating a drought, Flynn dug a fifth well last year. But there hasn’t been enough precipitation to fill anything. The new well has dried up and the ponds are empty. The other option, water trucking, was also released this year; at the time Flynn examined it, there were none available.

Many in the region are trying to find solutions. A nearby winemaker, Ana Keller of Keller Estate, is working on a proposal to build a pipeline that would carry water from the Petaluma Water Recycling Plant to area farms, particularly along the Lakeville Highway, where Griffin’s Lair is located. She has secured buy-in from about 15 farmers — which include dairy, hay, tomato and other types of farmers — along this stretch, and hopes to present a formal proposal to the town of Petaluma. in September.

Such a pipeline could potentially be a lifeline for water-depleted wineries like Griffin’s Lair and Keller Estate, helping them keep their wells and ponds full so they can irrigate their plants. Still, even if the city is receptive, Keller said the project will take several years. In the meantime, Flynn is hopeful the 2022 growing season will go well: He plans to install another well, hoping to capture winter rainfall, and order water by truck sooner.

The drought is affecting many aspects of life in California beyond the vineyards. The state has already shut off water to many farmers in the state, and this week regulators voted to further restrict water access to thousands of farms in the Central Valley. Drought conditions can also make the land more vulnerable to wildfires, an issue that currently concerns the wine industry as fire season approaches.

“It points to the question – as time goes on, where will the places be where we can still grow wine?” said Mahle.

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