How the Drought Might Affect the Wine Industry

Mark Twain once said: “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fightin’ over.”

California and neighboring states are fighting to keep the current drought from giving a new meaning to the term “dry wine.”

With western states receiving less rainfall for the past four years than any period in last 165 years of recorded weather history, the current drought is having significant effects on the wine industry.

However, some experts say the effects are not all bad.

Last year, shipments of wines below $10 per bottle dropped about 3 percent and they continued to decline a bit more during the first half of this year, said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, a California trade organization based in Fresno.

He said the drought will mean decreased grape production in the North Coast of California, which some observers believe brings a better quality of wine. However, DiBuduo said, “That’s not necessarily true for the fruit grown in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“I’ve never seen it this dry for this period of time in the valley,” he said. “What the drought has done here is make farmers use water more efficiently by doing such things as irrigating at night to decrease evaporation.”

While sales of wine costing less than $10 a bottle are sliding, DiBuduo said sales of $15-to-$20 bottles of wine are increasing slightly. This has little to do with the drought, he said, but rather it stems from a post-recessionary trend that shows a growing number of consumers have more money to spend on higher-quality wines.

Reports from earlier this year indicate some producers of bottles of wine costing less than $10 are actually cutting their prices slightly to help boost sales.

Experts say using less water on grapevines forces them to produce smaller berries. That means sugar and flavors will be more concentrated. This is called “stressing” the vines. Does the drought put us at the tipping point for stressing?

“That depends on the location and the varietals,” said Nancy Light, vice president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. “We’ve had four years of very health harvests, but more rain would give us more options; it helps with the quality and quality of the grapes.”

Some hope is on the horizon as scientists predict an 80 to 90 percent chance of some significant rainfall later this year and into 2016.

This long-range forecast comes from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, referring to the so-called El Niño condition, an anomalous but periodic warming of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Every two and seven years, that part of the ocean warms for six to 18 months, even though no one seems to know exactly why.

Weather history has shown heavy rainfall can occur with or without El Niño present. That occurred in the winter preceding the strong 1997-1998 El Niño. So, could this be a boon for wine grapes?

“I’ll defer to NOAA in this case,” said Mark Battany, viticulture and soils farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. He said the relationship between the occurrence of an El Niño and California rainfall isn’t very strongly correlated.

“The prediction in November 2014 was for a wet winter of 2014 and 2015,” Battany said. “(It) didn’t happen.

Experts say that while overall wine grapes are drought tolerant, but they are not invulnerable to long dry spells. They also warn that with too much rain, the grapes can be covered in mildew and mold.

So, experts say, weather is a double-edge sword. The best climate for wine grapes is a balance in the weather – kind of like the balance in a good blend.