California rainstorms ‘a dream come true’ for drought-stricken vineyards

Chris Corley of Monticello Vineyards in Napa walks through rows of vines after recent storms. (Preston Gannaway for The Washington Post)


RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY, Calif. — This region’s vintners have been turning very little water into very good wine year after year during an unrelenting drought.

So when recent rainstorms wreaked chaos across California, growers in the heart of the state’s iconic wine country did not grumble about the dangerous and disruptive weather. Instead, they welcomed the downpours like a godsend.

The record rainfall, brought on by a series of atmospheric rivers, may not be enough to officially end the state’s long dry spell. But it has filled depleted reservoirs, deposited many feet of snow atop California’s mountains and pulled the driest parts of the state out of “extreme drought” conditions. And it has quenched some very thirsty vines.

“It’s been a dream come true,” said Justin Seidenfeld, the winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, where the storms dumped nearly a full season of rain on parched fields over about three weeks. “Water has always been a concern for the last several years, and this year it’s not.”

The rainfall began around New Year’s Eve and continued steadily for weeks, with varying intensity. The storms turned streets into rivers and rivers into rushing rapids. Floods, mudslides and falling trees led to fatal accidents, and some initial estimates have put the damage at $1 billion.

In Sonoma and Napa counties, bucolic enclaves north of San Francisco where a rich history of agricultural production collides with playgrounds for California elites, the rains drenched vineyards. In some places, just the tips of vines were visible above pools of murky water. Some of the images appeared dire.

But for growers, the timing was just right.

While the region hasn’t seen this much rain in years, winter is usually peak wet season. And grape vines, fresh off a fall harvest, have gone dormant — a period akin to hibernation, when roots are active but the plant is storing nutrients for coming months.

Because the vines have not yet reached “bud break,” the moment leaves begin to emerge, their sturdy, woody trunks are able to withstand an extraordinary amount of standing water. And the soil, after years of drought, has been able to drink up much of the precipitation, draining the pools before disease or other ailments take hold.

The rain then seeps into the groundwater system, recharging aquifers.

For an industry worth an estimated $70 billion to the state’s economy, a few weeks of steady rain can have broad ripple effects. The precipitation allows farmers to save money on irrigation and water purchases, and it could lead to larger yields this year and next.

“There’s been a lot of joy,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a booster organization for the region’s grape farmers. “Our water storage levels have been so low, and growers have been figuring out how to use the bare minimum.”

In interviews with a dozen vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties, which together farm thousands of acres of California wine country, growers told The Washington Post that the rainstorms offered relief from a stretch of challenging years marred by drought, fires and smoke.

“We’re just incredibly thankful for the rains. Finally,” said Steve Matthiasson, the co-owner and winemaker of Matthiasson Wines in Napa. The winery has an on-site reservoir to collect and s’tore rainwater that is full for the first time in years. “This year was just like, ‘Yea, we hit the lottery.”

‘Old-school’ solutions

The last half-decade has run wine country through a climate disaster gantlet.

A succession of wildfires has devastated the region, burning farmland and spreading noxious smoke that traveled for miles, forcing many other growers to abandon grape vintages that were ruined by “smoke taint,” a sooty side effect of big blazes that can leave wines tasting like an ashtray.

Many here have stories of harrowing evacuations. Kruse was asleep in her home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove District one night in October 2017 when a neighbor pounded on her door. The Tubbs Fire was drawing near. She was one of the last to evacuate her neighborhood, and the next day she saw a photo of her property. It was one of many reduced to ashes in what was then California’s most destructive wildfire ever.

These challenges have forced the industry to adapt.

“Every time Mother Nature throws us a curveball, we figure out how to hit it back,” Kruse said.

The ongoing drought has thrown several their way. In 2021, state regulators, concerned that the Russian River could run dry, ordered communities to stop drawing from its watershed. The river is the lifeblood of the region, providing drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents, a home for threatened species and irrigation for farms.

At Front Porch Farms, the unprecedented cuts decimated business. In addition to wine grapes, the organic farm grows flowers, fruit and produce on 110 acres off a bumpy country road east of downtown Healdsburg, beside a bend in the Russian River.

The crops dried out and the farm had to cut staff, said Tommy Otey, the farm’s general manager. The shock forced an existential question: “How do we get water security for the future?”

The team came up with a costly solution. They dug an 11-million gallon pond at the corner of their property, designed to catch rain — forfeiting some farmland to store water that could save the rest. They had just finished the pond when the rainstorms arrived. It is now full.

“We did sacrifice a decent amount of productive space to build this pond,” Otey said. “But obviously, it’s a trade-off that’s worth it.”

Industry experts expect more and more growers to invest in this type of reservoir — if they can afford the price tag that can run up to a half-million dollars.

Wine grapes don’t require as much water as some other agricultural products, like nuts or alfalfa, but persistent drought conditions have forced growers to figure out how to use as little as possible. They have long employed drip irrigation to more efficiently water fields, and a new generation of technology is allowing farmers to measure moisture levels in the soil, air and vines.

But some have argued that a return to more traditional grape farming practices will be the key to winemaking in a changing climate.

Natalie Winkler, the viticulturist and winemaker at Napa Valley’s Salvestrin, said she has made a series of adjustments, including pulling fewer leaves off the vines and cutting back on hedging, allowing the plants to shade each other’s fruit — a boon for the increasing number of days that reach triple-digit heat.

When vineyards plant new rows of vines, she said, they should consider facing them away from the blistering afternoon sunlight.

“It’s old school,” Winkler said. “If you’re farming using these techniques, those vines have a natural resiliency toward climatic events. … I think we can still grow grapes here. Do I know for how long? No. But I think adapting our wine-growing practices is going to help us a lot.”

At Balletto Vineyards, just northeast of Sebastopol, roughly 30 of the producer’s 850 acres of vines were still under feet of water Thursday. Along with the flooding came debris that will be a headache to clean up, said John Balletto, the vineyard’s founder. “But all in all, we’re pretty happy right now with the water situation,” he said — the first time in years he’s uttered those words.

Balletto, who has been farming in Sonoma County since graduating high school in the 1970s, recently expanded his business, betting big on its ability to adapt to future conditions.

“John and I are now accustomed to the idea that there is no normal,” said Anthony Beckman, Balletto’s winemaker. The pair, who have worked together for more than 15 years, keep a file cabinet of “really weird weather,” noting the adjustments that worked. “We’ve hit a point where we’re in-tune enough with our vineyards that I think we could handle anything.”

Others are less confident.

Grayson Hartley, the winemaker at Preston Farm and Winery in north Sonoma County, worries that climate change could rupture the historical connections that run through wine, allowing, say, a zinfandel from his Dry Creek Valley to taste the same across generations.

“If the climate changes, it’s all out the window,” he said. “It’s like comparing baseball stats from 1917 to 1968.”

Winemakers disagree over whether anyone — even the most fine-tuned palates — would be able to detect notes of this rainy season in the terroir of forthcoming pinot noir and chardonnay vintages. Too many other factors determine taste, they said, but healthier vines are always preferable.

Hartley has begun exploring grapes that are more associated with hotter environments, looking to make wines that retain their freshness even as temperatures soar. He recently planted vines of Nero d’Avola, a grape from Sicily that thrives in hot climates, and he said he will probably make more white wine going forward, which uses grapes that can be picked earlier in the season.

Lately, he said, he has noticed little things that have sent him spiraling — grapes ripening earlier than they used to, for example, or other hints of warming weather.

“I just start spinning out about fire, about bringing kids into this disastrous world,” Hartley said. “None of that used to be there. It used to just be: ‘Wine is beautiful, let’s go make wine.’”

But for now, he said, the rainstorms have temporarily subdued the feeling of climate doom. For others, too.

“It bodes very well for this year, which is what we need,” said Winkler in Napa. “We need a break. Not just the plants, but humans too.”

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