In Europe, wine grapes have been farmed without irrigation for thousands of years. In these regions, where every aspect of wine production is tightly regulated, the practice is outlawed under the belief that irrigation can be detrimental to quality. Some wine critics argue that using water as a substitute for rainfall is not a true expression of terroir, or a sense of place, in wine. That’s a debate that will continue indefinitely.
In our relatively young wine region, as well as the rest of California, the vast majority of vineyards are irrigated. While grapevines require significantly less water than many other agricultural crops, the historic drought in California is putting every farm, vineyard and orchard under the microscope.
Surprisingly, there are a handful of dry-farmed vineyards in Santa Barbara County that produce delicious wine in spite of this drastic water shortage. Over the past year, I had the pleasure of spending some time with local dry farming pioneers Dick Doré and William “Billy” Wathen to learn more about what they are doing—without water—in the Santa Maria Valley.
The two have been working together since 1985. They are co-founders and co-owners of Foxen Vineyard & Winery. Billy handles vineyard management and winemaking. Dick has stayed focused on selling the wine they produce. It is an ideal partnership, seemingly because they know how to stay out of each other’s way.
While Foxen sources grapes from vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County, their own 10-acre Tinaquaic (think “ten o’clock”) Vineyard is perched 500 feet above their solar-powered winery on Foxen Canyon Road. They planted the vineyard in 1989 by gathering the leftover cuttings from historic Santa Barbara County vineyards using a method Dick affectionately refers to as “Volar de Noche” (fly by night).
A recurring element in many stories of their early days is Dick’s old orange pickup truck, which carried the cuttings up the mountain where they buried them 24 to 30 inches into the soil. 1989 and 1990 were relatively wet years, so the vines took off in the fertile soil that was the historic Rancho Tinaquaic, purchased in 1837 by English sea captain William Benjamin Foxen, Dick’s great-great-grandfather.
When asked why they chose to dry farm, the answer was simple: They just don’t have access to water way up there. Relying only on the water that nature provides, the vines must be meticulously farmed by Billy’s vineyard crew. Special viticulture techniques, such as pruning back growth, are applied to maximize the plant’s limited energy and efficiency.
Interestingly, the amount of fruit yielded per vine is actually determined the year prior, so they must constantly consider the big picture. If they overtax the vines this year, another small crop will follow, no matter how much rain falls.
In an average year they farm two to three tons of grapes to the acre at Tinaquaic Vineyard. But in a drought year, especially following a drought year, grape yields can be disturbingly low. In 2014, Foxen harvested less than a half-ton of grapes per acre.
Billy enjoys working with the unique concentration and characteristics that come from the Tinaquaic Vineyard fruit, but Dick is always looking at the numbers. When asked about the vineyard, Dick says, with a smirk, “It makes no economic sense, but it makes damn good wine.”
It turns out that no matter what the crop yield is, it still costs Foxen the same to farm the land. They produce anywhere from 500 to 2,000 cases a year of dry farmed Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc from the vineyard. Those costs aren’t passed to the consumer, but imagine if they were! That would be an expensive bottle of wine.
The two chalk it up to the romance of dry farming. It’s an interesting challenge for them, and so far the good years have made up for the bad.