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Vines by nature: Some Central Coast grape growers depend on seasonal cycles to dry farm their vines 

The red-hued, sandy soil in the area west of New Cuyama is made up of the sort of fine dust that settles on your shoes and clothes, softening the color of jeans and cowboy boots. 

This soil is where Stephen Gliessman and Roberta Jaffe opted to root their grape vines about two decades ago. They grow zinfandel, shiraz, mission, and Pedro Ximénez wine grapes in the windy, often dry, and seemingly desolate rolling hills in northeastern Santa Barbara County, just outside the boundaries of Los Padres National Forest. 

“Zinfandel is our main one,” Gliessman said from beneath the shade of a netted canopy, overlooking vines, olive trees, and shrub brush-covered low-lying hills. “It really likes the heat and has adapted to the dry-farming system really well.” 

click to enlarge STAND ALONE:  Typically, dry-farmed grapevines are planted as lone vineyard soldiers, not trellised together like you would see in a mainstream vineyard. Tablas Creek Vineyards near Paso Robles, Stolpman Vineyards near Los Olivos, and Condor’s Hope near New Cuyama all have their own styles of cultivating their dry-farmed vineyards, which use way less water than a typical California vineyard. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • STAND ALONE: Typically, dry-farmed grapevines are planted as lone vineyard soldiers, not trellised together like you would see in a mainstream vineyard. Tablas Creek Vineyards near Paso Robles, Stolpman Vineyards near Los Olivos, and Condor’s Hope near New Cuyama all have their own styles of cultivating their dry-farmed vineyards, which use way less water than a typical California vineyard.

How dry their vineyard is actually farmed depends almost completely on the weather. It depends on the amount of rain, when it falls, and how showers are spread throughout the spring. It depends on the timing of the heat and the frost and how intense each is. There have been several years when rain alone did the trick, and the couple didn’t irrigate at all. But this year, the fourth year of California’s by now world-famous drought, the couple needs to bring water to the vines of Condor’s Hope or they’ll lose them. 

But still, Gliessman said they only use 5 percent of the water per acre that most other vineyards in California consume. And they certainly use significantly less water than the acres upon acres of carrots Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway grow to the east of their property. 

The water Condor’s Hope uses is meant to mimic a presumably traditional rain pattern, and the way the vines receive it is meant to push the roots deeper into the ground in search of stored water. Gliessman and Jaffe turn on the faucet once every three weeks or so, which pushes life-sustaining liquid through the drip irrigation system, delivering each and every vine its own supply of mimicked spring rain.

At its core, dry farming is nothing new. It’s the way things were done before modern agriculture urged water to move all over otherwise dry places like California, converting the drops that fell in the north and the snow that covered the Sierra Nevada into commercially viable high yields of crops and cattle. 

At its core, dry farming in California uses nature the way it comes: Rain in the spring, followed by the dry heat of summer. 

“Dry farming is not a yield maximization strategy; rather, it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agriculture production in a region,” according to an overview of the practice on the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative’s website. “Dry farming is more than just the absence of irrigation.” 

It ties the relationship between the farmer and the crop intricately to the natural water cycle, sun, and soil and the way they all work together to grow anything. Gliessman and Jaffe believe it’s the way things should be, a way of growing that agriculture and society need to find again.

“All of California’s in a crisis, and a lot of that has to do with agriculture,” Jaffe said. “They can drill all the wells they want to drill now, but at some point, they’re going to run out of water.” 

Agroecology and grapes

On a Monday in April, Gliessman sat at a shaded picnic table covered in a tablecloth dotted with olives. The bench was between his legs, and he took off his hat from time to time so he could rub his head as he spoke. He ramped up into a soft-spoken, direct sort of passion as he described why he does what he does. He talked about farming, casually peppering his speech with technical terms he’s used most of his life.

For this retired UCSC professor who essentially started the school’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems program, the journey started in Mexico—Tabasco, to be exact—in the 1970s, during something he calls the “Green Revolution.” It had nothing to do with what we think of as being environmentally green or lessening the impact of your carbon footprint. 

The Encyclopedia of Earth describes the essence of the Green Revolution as “developing fertilizer-responsive varieties of wheat and rice that would increase national yields of these basic cereals.” It’s maximizing what’s produced through intensive fertilizing—nitrogen-loading the soil and the crop. The thought was that the practice would reduce hunger, poverty, misery, and social upheaval. 

click to enlarge DRIP DROP:  The drought forced Condor’s Hope to irrigate its vines this season so the plants don’t die. The grapes are watered once every three weeks. - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • DRIP DROP: The drought forced Condor’s Hope to irrigate its vines this season so the plants don’t die. The grapes are watered once every three weeks.

What Gliessman witnessed in Tabasco, Mexico, was five years of World Bank-sponsored large-scale monocultures of hybrid seeds—mostly corn, beans, and rice—pushed onto the area’s inhabitants. He watched as they pumped chemicals into the ground and overwatered the crops in a heavy clay soil that wouldn’t drain. He watched as the soil eroded away, and weeds and pests took over. He watched as crops failed, and the yields were a fraction of what was hoped for.

“It didn’t work,” he said frankly. “It was just a mess, not to mention what it was doing to the people.”

Up until that point, the people of Tabasco were small farmers, Gliessman said. “They basically removed people from their traditional communities … and put these great big fields around them.”

He was there to teach ecology at a small school and intimately got to know the traditional way of farming and the people in the region.

“They had an incredible knowledge about how to work with nature,” he said. “It was kind of serendipitous.”

There, in that place, surrounded by tradition and new-wave methods of mass farming, agroecology became a thing.

“The application of ecological concepts/principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems” is how he defines the term. It basically looks at the food-growing process as a whole—from the seed and soil all the way to the table—“and it includes people,” he added.

“I’d like to think of it as putting the culture back in agriculture,” he said with a laugh. “Working with nature instead of against it.”

The vineyard at Condor’s Hope is his way of putting into practice what he preaches, essentially. He and Jaffe carefully cultivate, prune, and head-train the vines into a sort of candelabra that is, at this time of year, only just starting to bud. Each stands on its own, spaced out and free of the trellises you generally see leading other vineyards down row after row. 

But of all the things a person can grow, why grapes?

“I’d always wanted to grow grapes. I don’t know why,” he said. “I’m a Californian, I guess.” 

Trapping water

In California, mainstream grape production involves regular irrigation. That, according to Gliessman, causes a vine’s roots to grow shallowly, in a little cluster near where the water’s deposited. Dry-farmed grapes have roots that instinctively seek out water, growing deeper and wider than they would otherwise.

Tablas Creek Vineyards outside of Paso Robles features both irrigated grapevines and dry-farmed, non-irrigated grapes. And unlike the current forced-because-of-the-drought irrigation program at Condor’s Hope, Tablas Creek doesn’t give its dry-farmed vines a drop of water after their second year in existence. 

click to enlarge COUPLE’S HOPE:  Stephen Gliessman and Roberta Jaffe inspect the growth of their spring vines. They would like the world to rethink the way it relates to agriculture and be more cognizant of how resources are used in farming - PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • COUPLE’S HOPE: Stephen Gliessman and Roberta Jaffe inspect the growth of their spring vines. They would like the world to rethink the way it relates to agriculture and be more cognizant of how resources are used in farming

Pretty much all commercial vines, dry-farmed or not, need a little bit of water help from humans so they can get established—unless it’s a super wet year, which hasn’t happened in a long while. Those little green-leafed vine saplings are given less water in the second year than they were in the first, and once their roots are solidly sunk, they’re cut off, said Levi Glenn, the viticulturist for Tablas Creek.

The difference between Tablas Creek and Condor’s Hope is in both climate and soil. Whereas Condor’s Hope received 6 inches of rainfall this season, Tablas Creek got 13 inches. And while Condor’s Hope has a sort of fine sandy layer of soil that sits on top of a cobbley sandstone, Tablas Creek has thick clay soil interspersed with limestone. 

“What makes this spot very unique is definitely the soils,” Glenn said of the vineyards he tends in the Adelaida AVA. “You have drainage and water-holding capacity.”

Clay holds onto water, and limestone enables the soil to drain. The hills above that soil were lined with vines and still had green grass clinging to them, and the mid-morning fog was hanging its cool head down on a recent Wednesday. Glenn rolled up and over the hilltops in a black four-wheel drive Tacoma with his chocolate lab Mavis trotting in front, leading the way.

At the top of a crest, he stopped and got out to show off some dry-farmed grenache, which was planted in 2012. It’s also trellis-free and, although it’s only 3 years old, is already being head-trained. He dipped his no-lace, brown work boot into the top of crusted-over soil.

“This all looks dry, but it’s completely moist soil,” he said.

A couple of inches down, that soil was black with moisture—not muddy or soggy, just a little wet. Glenn picked it up and used his thumb to push it out of his palm and back to the ground. 

He explained that the dry soil on top acts as an incubation layer, holding in the moisture that spring rains fed the ground. Workers use equipment to create that top layer after whatever rain event is thought to be the last of the season; it creates this sort of air-infused pocket of soil that’s key to any dry-farmed operation because it prevents the water below it from evaporating. 

As the moisture from that soil is absorbed into the grapevines over the course of a season, the roots are forced to search for water deeper and deeper in the ground. 

“It’s a simple way of farming,” Glenn said. “And the vines kind of take care of themselves a little bit more.” 

Surprisingly, the dry-farmed vines are faring better in this fourth spring of drought than the irrigated ones are. They’re more resilient, adept at searching for water and making the season work. 

“One of our wells has dropped significantly,” he said. “We can’t depend on having water in the future, or as much as we’ve had in the past.” 

 

Telling a story

Glenn grew up across the street from an old dry-farmed zinfandel vineyard in Dry Creek, near the Russian River. He attended Cal Poly and headed north again after he graduated, working for a Sonoma vineyard called Unti, caring for dry-farmed, biodynamic vines.

Growing up in wine country—surrounded by Napa, Sonoma, the Alexander Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek—he found the historic dry-farmed vineyards to have a true history, stretching 60 to 75 years or more, including different farmers and vine-tenders. They weather time, essentially.

“All the old vineyards were dry farmed,” Glenn said. “And these were the vineyards that were cool and interesting to me because they had a story. … A vineyard can outlast a human being; it’s got to have stewardship to make it that long.” 

click to enlarge LITTLE VINES:  Tablas Creek Vineyards is moving toward establishing 50 percent of its acreage as dry-farmed grapes. The winery planted its first dry-farmed bloc in the late 2000s. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • LITTLE VINES: Tablas Creek Vineyards is moving toward establishing 50 percent of its acreage as dry-farmed grapes. The winery planted its first dry-farmed bloc in the late 2000s.

He looks at the vines he now tends, especially his project on what’s nicknamed “Scraggy Hill,” as the younger years of a dry-farmed vineyards’ story. Scraggy Hill is the first spot where Tablas Creek established dry-farmed grapes. There’s mourvédre and grenache, among other varieties, grown on its steep slopes, and the quality of the wines those grapes produced was a big catalyst for the winery’s push to establish more of the same. Eventually, in the next five to 10 years, dry-farmed acreage will encompass at least 50 percent of Tablas Creek’s production.

The story’s similar at Stolpman Vineyards outside of Los Olivos. After a few heinous curves down Ballard Canyon Road, its trellised vines grow west of the concrete. The method of dry farming here is a distinct from that of Tablas Creek or Condor’s Hope. Each bloc is treated a little differently than the others, and the experiment of new-age dry farming is more apparent here than at the other vineyards. 

“We try a lot of things,” said Ruben Solorzano, the vineyard manager, whose pale leather belt matched his boots. 

He’s been working the vineyards in Ballard Canyon for at least 32 years, and he’s traversed the rows of Stolpman since 1994. The vineyard has hillsides that maintain 6,000 vines an acre and those that only hold 800 vines an acre. It all depends on what year they were planted. Solorzano waters the grapes through the spring, typically once every three weeks, to maintain the consistency of a rainy season—except, of course, in wet years. 

“We don’t use much,” he said. Generally, the vines will get 24 gallons throughout the whole of spring. Mainstream cultivation typically gives each vine 6 to 10 gallons per week, Solorzano said. Although Solorzano is a full-fledged convert to dry-farming ways, the shift took a little bit of convincing.

When Peter Stolpman first approached Solorzano about trying it out on a bloc of grapes, he was a little skeptical. He resisted, but they planted 2 acres.

“I was so nervous I couldn’t even sleep. I thought the vines were all going to die,” Solorzano said. “I’ve got to be honest, I almost cried a couple of times.”

But after the first wines from those acres were produced, he changed his mind.

“The next year, we did the whole vineyard, because the wines produced were much better than the vines next to it,” he said. “It was unbelievable.” 

What’s sacrificed for that quality of grape is quantity. Basically, you lose half the fruit. Both Tablas Creek and Stolpman are producing anywhere from 2 to 2 1/2 tons of grapes per acre. This year, Condor’s Hope will most likely produce between 1 and 2 tons per acre of grapes. 

But for Jaffe and Gliessman, that’s what this dry-farming business is all about. Jaffe said you can taste a harvest season in its vintage. You can tell the difference between more rain and less as you drink it. You can tell how hard the vines had to work to push that fruit to ripen, how early or late the harvest was. The series of vintages tells its own story of a vineyard and the people who worked to tend it. 

“It becomes part of what dry farming is all about and about what this dry farm is about,” Jaffe said.

 

Contact Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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