California storms were great for wine

Jason Haas and his staff at Tablas Creek Vineyard were unable to reach their vines for several days.

The January storms that swept through California washed the roads and burst river banks, making even the simplest commute dangerous. The tasting rooms were closed for four days.

But still, he was excited.

Atmospheric rivers that swamped California for two weeks caused an estimated $30 billion (£24 billion) in damage. Up and down the state, flooding brought down hillsides, uprooted trees, and washed away highways. At least 20 people died and millions were under flood warning.

But the rain has also provided a much-needed gift to California’s famous wineries, which have endured three years of drought, extreme wildfires, and the increasingly apocalyptic cycle of climate change. Rains replenished groundwater and refilled reservoirs, giving winemakers hope for a productive growing season.

This isn’t just good news for wine growers and enthusiasts: the industry generates tens of billions of dollars for California’s economy and is one of the state’s best-known exports.

Water has a direct effect on how much a vineyard can produce in any given year. The Tablas Creek Vineyard on the coastal foothills of Paso Robles has been producing about a third of its typical yield since 2017 due to severe drought. “This was the last bountiful harvest we had,” said Mr. Haas.

But this year may be different.

Mr. Haas said the winter rains that feed the vines while they are still dormant and have not yet started growing grapes are “almost always a good thing”.

“It will ensure that the vines have enough strength to mature the crop this year,” he continued. “It’s not a guarantee that the wines will be great, but it does remove one of the biggest concerns we have: there won’t be enough water to keep the vines growing.”

Wine merchants in California’s Napa Valley “were celebrating in some ways. We desperately need the rain,” said Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards. In fact, he added, “we want more.”

Mr. Smith uses dry farming techniques, so most of his vines are not irrigated. This makes abundant rainfall and groundwater particularly important because “our vines only take what mother nature gave us,” he said.

A series of storms didn’t wipe out California’s historic drought, but it did relieve the state.

According to the US Drought Monitor, as of January 19, only 46% of California was experiencing “severe drought,” with 80% of the state experiencing severe drought last month.

Last month, 35% of the state experienced “extreme drought” – insufficient water supply for agriculture – but as of this week, the percentage of states dealing with these conditions has dropped to less than 1%.

A lot of rain does not automatically turn into more or better wine. Gustavo Gonzalez, whose Mira Winery in Napa is one of the few to be flooded by rain and overflowing streams, said grapes must survive a challenging growing season made more dangerous by climate change.

A flooded vineyard in Santa Rosa, California, viewed from above.

On January 9, 2023, a vineyard flooded in Santa Rosa, California.

He said the rest of the year could be dry. Poorly timed frost can kill delicate buds. Forest fires, which have become more intense and dangerous due to climate change, can start in October, just before harvest. And then there are the usual enemies: rot, insects, and a host of other problems that have plagued the vine for centuries.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Gonzalez told the BBC. “We can have a wild mood at almost any moment. We can’t relax.”

Each winemaker has given different opinions on whether this season’s heavy rains will affect the flavor of the vineyard.

Mr Gonzalez said in some cases too much water can produce bloated, less flavored grapes. Mr. Smith was more reluctant to think of it as an “immeasurable” question, as he put it.

“You won’t know until you pick the grapes,” Smith said.

All winemakers agreed on a foolproof way to determine the quality of this year’s harvest: just drink it.

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