If you've noticed more freshly cleared fields and piles of discarded vines than normal in Napa, you're not imagining things. When driving through the vineyards this year, one will see a higher occurrence of fallow fields and fledgling vines. Unfortunately, it is not due to normal vineyard cycles. Wine country is being hit with the perfect storm of stress vectors: epic drought, Red Blotch and Pierce's disease (with the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter always looming).
As Andrew Adams from WINES & VINES writes, the majority in Napa plan to replace vines by 2017. "During the recent harvest, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers surveyed its members about the vintage and their vineyards and found that 86% of those who responded plan to redevelop at least some of their acreage in 2017. About 60% of the members redeveloped acreage in 2015 and 62% said they did this year." For the full run down, you can read the article here.
With roughly 45,000 acres of vineyards in Napa, the potential impact is massive. It's not just the effort of ripping out the old and putting in new rootstock but getting a vineyard back to commercial production afterwards.
Replanting is a normal part of the viticulture lifecycle, where vines typically peak after about 25 years, where at that point, yields begin to drop and they’re less productive. Of course for some varietals, such as cabs and zin, the age can be desired and low yields embraced for greater fruit intensity. Though most vineyards will choose to have their vineyards replaced.
Unfortunately, the process is very involved and far from quick. While the average new clone/root stock may only cost $3-4 per vine (or about $35,000 per acre), the labor involved is significant. On top of that outlay, the road to a viable first harvest is approximately 3-5 years. Young vines will produce fruit earlier but they require nurturing and maturation before the fruit is suitable for wine-making. That means years of care and maintenance with no vintages (or revenue) – ouch.
Thankfully 2017 is proving to be a turning point from a drought perspective. With a series of heavy storms from the Pineapple Express, Northern California has been officially moved out of drought status and most reservoirs are at capacity. However, no one is popping corks yet, as replenishing critical ground water will take much longer and we could easily slip back into dire straights should another dry spell occur.
Speaking of which, and not to be Debbie Downer, but Napa Valley has also been facing the impact of climate change as well. With slightly higher temperatures every season, some studies predict that California wine country could see a 70% drop in production by 2050 and Oregon becoming the new mainstay for U.S. wine beyond its current Pinot notoriety. You can read more on the overall impact in a recent article in the New York Times here. All that said, vintners are very dedicated to farming in the most eco-friendly ways possible with regards to water conservation, solar energy and natural pest control.
Hopefully this has been informative and not too alarming but it's worth understanding just how challenging wine-making can be in Napa and precarious a state when Mother Nature throws some big curve balls. Though despite the battles, every vintner will tell you they're fortunate and proud to be tilling the earth and sharing its bounty with the world.
- Mike Casey, The 29 Napa