California Drought Puts Renewed Focus On Dry Grape Growing For Wineries

AMADOR COUNTY (CBS13) — California’s drought is forcing farmers across the state to squeeze the most out of every last drop of water, but what if it was possible to grow a bountiful crop with no water at all?

One local winery is doing just that, with a centuries-old technique enjoying a renaissance in parched California. 

A soft breeze is blowing through Amador County, where the birds are chirping, the flags are flying and the wine is flowing at Andis Wines.

For winemaker Mark McKenna, “It’s a dream come true.”

For the last 10 years, Andis Wines has produced some of Amador County’s most sought-after wines, and they’ve done it with little to no water. 

The winery, like some others, practices dry farming. At first blush, the phrase sounds a little contradictory, but the technique actually dates back thousands of years. 

With the lingering drought and a focus on sustainability and environmental consciousness at the winery, McKenna set out with Andis’ owners to do something that few other wineries are doing or can do—they let the grapes figure out how to survive on their own. In other words, you don’t water them. 

“How does it work? You don’t do anything. You plant a grapevine,” he said.

He makes it sound so simple, but we soon learned there is so much more to dry farming than that. 

“It’s the weather, it’s the soil, it’s the grape, it’s the winemaker—if we don’t get in the way,” he said. 

He took us for a walk through the vines to see for ourselves how it work with Zinfandel grapes McKenna says were planted in 1977 by a group of college students.

“So by dry farming what we’re really doing is focusing on the site,” he said. “So the grape vines are pulling nutrients and water from the soil, as opposed to us managing them. So it’s like letting a kid be themselves as opposed to trying to control them, and we find it just makes more interesting wine and that’s our goal.”

The only time he waters most of the vines is in the first couple of years. After that, the roots grow deep enough that they find the moisture they need. 

So if it’s really that effective, why aren’t more farmers doing it, especially during the drought?

It turns out that most crops wouldn’t and couldn’t survive under these conditions.

“Folks who grow grapes are very fortunate, it’s not like the row crop farmers in the Central Valley or even orchardists. we are able to survive on very little water,” he said. 

According to the U.S. Census of agriculture, there are 8 million acres of harvested cropland in California, and 7.6 million acres of it is irrigated. 

Andis Wines started dry farming before the drought took a major toll. 

“If they’re feeling threatened, during the drought, they put more energy into the grapes. The grapes then make better wine,” he said. 

The grapes are then harvested and settled into containers before they go into the barrels after a few additions and tweaks. 

McKenna says he’s always looking for ways his winery can push the boundaries. 

“We really minimize our use of water and part of that is the respect for the crisis that we’re going thru as Californians,” he said. “It takes commitment, so it’s not a job, I don’t even look at it as a job, I look at it like it’s what I do and at some point, the legacy we leave behind is hopefully to elevate Amador County to where it belongs, which is with the great wine regions of the world.”

California isn’t alone in using the process. Colorado, Oregon and Washington grow a variety of crops using the technique that’s growing in popularity.

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Chris Alexakiswater