Sweet Today, Gone Tomorrow? The Impact of California’s Drought on the Wine Industry

grape vine
5/5/2015

In the worst of the going-on four year drought, many California wineries may be approaching the end of the vine. Many are predicting that despite how dry 2014 was, the 2015 season in California will be drier than ever. And although grapes are much more drought-tolerant that most other crops, they aren’t invincible. So the time may be at hand to purchase your favorite California wines.

Impact on the Grape Vines

Long-established vines can dig up to 100 feet below the soil for water, allowing them to survive when other plants cannot. So currently, the larger, well-established wineries are still doing fine, but the smaller and newer vineyards have vines that do not yet reach that low. Regardless of how deep the vines can reach, if there isn’t some rain to flush out the soil, salt will build up and can both damage and kill the vines. Grape vines have a tendency to “shut down” when there is a drought by stopping to produce fruit in order to survive. This is a gradual change. But experts predict that it would take years of downpour to really get them healthy again—just as they are slow to stop producing fruit, they are slow to start back up again.

One firm, Fruition Sciences, believes that dry farming is possible, and vineyards should be able to cut 40 percent of water use. The theory is that by utilizing sensors, drones, and data analysis, operators can know when the plant needs water instead of relying on when it “looks like it needs water.” Founder Thibaut Scholasch says, “People try to grow vines like lush green, flower-box plants . . . We are trying to untrain people from relying on what they see with their eyes.”

Impact on the Wineries

Despite the downturn in production, high-end California wineries are actually showing an increase in demand. The average American is paying $10 or more for a bottle of wine. So it’s actually the small vineyards that produce cheaper wine that are experiencing the current loss. These wineries are selling about $7 a bottle or less to try to compete with other beverages such as craft beer. However, their farms are producing less fruit, their newer vines do not dig as deep in the soil for water, and their overall costs per bottle are going up. These producers are facing hard times, and with much more drought, it’s possible many may have to close.

Impact on the Wine

The drought causes the vines to produce smaller, concentrated grapes with thick skins, which in turn makes a more flavorful wine. You’ll taste the fruit first and notice a fuller body. Also, the warmer weather has been happening sooner and sooner each year, meaning the fruit ripens earlier. This also affects the sugar content of the grapes.

Impact on the Consumer

If you enjoy a fruitier, sweeter wine then certainly you’ll want to be enjoying bottles from California this year, and perhaps stocking up. Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, told CNBC that consumers should start purchasing the good vintage wines while they are still available: “The quality may be dropping soon; you want to buy them and have them for a couple of years.”

At Vintage Wine Company, we sell a very large variety of California wines and distribute them to markets and restaurants in the Detroit Metro area and around Michigan. Our company delivers wine to the Detroit Metro area, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and most of the east side of the state. But if you’re in Michigan and not in those areas, we can arrange delivery through one of our distributing partners. Give us a call today at 586-601-0990 to see how we can help deliver those California (or other varieties) wine to your business.

Tags: California Drought