California Drought: Will the 2014 wine vintage be “extraordinary”?

Lack of water, it turns out, forces vines (as it does other plants) to become more resourceful. In turn, they produce smaller berries. Resulting wines are concentrated, rich in flavor.

California cumulative water storage changes (NASA, 2002-2014).
California cumulative water storage changes (NASA, 2002-2014).

There’s a potential upside to California’s historic drought. For winemakers it may very well be that, despite enduring endless heat (and then those in Napa dealing with an earthquake), all this powerful sun will produce wines that are, in the words of WSJ’s Jim Carlton, “extraordinary.”

“This year’s vintage could be one for the ages”

Lack of water, it turns out, forces vines (as it does other plants) to become more resourceful. In turn, they produce smaller berries, explains Carlton in his recent piece “California Drought Produces Tastier Wine Grapes.” That results in concentrated flavors. To my way of thinking, imagine tasting a powerful shot of espresso (pure, bold) versus nursing on an Americano (watered down, relaxed).

Lack of moisture has other benefits too for grape growers.

One, because ripeness comes sooner the growing season ends early – this can eliminate some of the backend harvest risk associated with fall storms (e.g. hail).

Another upside: reduced risk of mildew.

Still, there’s little doubt, everyone wants to see rain. The overall impact to California’s economy has been substantially harmful (for example, honey crop production is down from 27.5 million pounds in 2010 to 10.9 million in 2013). Groundwaters and reservoirs are dry, or near dry. Emergency water measures are in effect.

Severe Drought is Causing the Western U.S. to Rise
A GPS station in the Inyo Mountains, California. According to scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the severe drought is causing the entire western U.S. to rise up like “an uncoiled spring.” (Photo: Shawn Lawrence, UNAVCO).

Will the 2014 wine vintage be “extraordinary”?

If this year’s vintage does produce extraordinary wines it will have certainly occurred during extraordinary times.

I recently read that the drought is so bad that it has even, amazingly enough, “altered California’s gravitational field.” And, mountains have risen up to half an inch – less water makes the earth less dense.

With less yield, however, volumes could be down. So the wines may taste great, but thanks to overall less supply that could come at a cost to consumers in the form of higher priced bottles. Still there won’t be much for us to cry about relative to the hardship the agriculture industry has faced here, especially over the past three years.

Yes, 2014 may be a high scoring wine vintage. But there will no doubt be some bittersweet aftertaste to that glass of Cab.

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  • Gordon Lehman

    It is true that depriving grapevines of water, particularly between flower and veraison, produces smaller berries. Since most important flavor components of red wine are in the skin and the seeds, a smaller berry and a lower skin and seed to volume ratio tend to produce more intense flavors. Those of us with mountain vineyards chuckle that this happens for us every year.
    It is not true that California has experienced a steady groundwater decline from 2002 to 2014 as implied from the NASA graphic. Nor is it true that the Grace project, which is designed for high precision measurement of altitude, is a particularly good tool for assessing groundwater unless you are prepared to discount the geological forces that have elevated California and the western US for twenty million years or so.
    There has surely been some isostatic rebound from the lost weight of groundwater, but to attribute all of the rise in the Sierra and the Inyo mountains to groundwater rebound is simply foolish and misleading.