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Drought conditions force California wineries to change how they grow grapes


California is in a second year of severe drought. That means lost crops for many grape growers in the state's famed wine country. So they have had to find ways to adapt. Ezra David Romero of member station KQED explains.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: On a foggy September morning, farmworkers are harvesting plump purple grapes at Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma County. John Hamel II directs wine growing.

JOHN HAMEL II: We're in our block six, Cabernet Sauvignon.

ROMERO: His approach is very different from his wine country neighbors.

HAMEL: These vines haven't received a drop of water since 2017.

ROMERO: He stopped watering 80% of his vines after realizing that's what some growers do in places like France. The grape skins grow thicker, making wines tastier.

HAMEL: This season will be slightly lower in yield, but we actually feel like this has the potential to be, like, a very good vintage.

ROMERO: The roots of dry farmed vines search deeper for water, and he saved 2 million gallons last year.

HAMEL: This is the first year where I feel like we've really had a payback. The vines have been trained to deal with a drought.

ROMERO: Dry farming in California is not a widely used tactic, but it's one way growers are adapting. California is increasingly hot and dry. But does it pose an existential threat to wine?

KAAN KURTURAL: Drought is not coming for wine. Quality has steadily increased as the climate warmed.

ROMERO: That's UC Davis viticulture specialist Kaan Kurtural. He released a study this summer and found that since the 1980s, the climate has steadily warmed. But he says this has not been bad for the industry. A warmer climate actually helped establish the state as a premier wine growing region globally.

KURTURAL: As it became warmer, we started harvesting sweeter grapes. With the sweeter grapes, the wine ratings have steadily increased.

ROMERO: Still, he says climate change presents other risks like heat waves and wildfires.

KURTURAL: I tell the growers your grape vines are not going to die. They might not be economical to grow for one or two years, but they always come back.

ROMERO: Despite those negative effects, Kurtural says the state's $40 billion wine market is strong.

KURTURAL: We are growing grapes at the lowest costs for the grossest profit.

ROMERO: But for some growers, climate impacts do threaten their livelihoods. Tobin Heminway is showing me around her winery Green & Red Vineyard in the hills of Napa County.

TOBIN HEMINWAY: My father bought this property in 1969. And the first vines that he planted were in 1972 right here that you're looking at.

ROMERO: All that legacy was in jeopardy two summers ago when a fire burned just feet from the vineyards.

HEMINWAY: Lightning struck and fire started right at our next-door neighbors.

ROMERO: The vines survived, but smoke tainted their grapes, and they lost their reds.

HEMINWAY: We were fortunate that the vineyard itself acted almost as a firebreak.

ROMERO: This summer, heat waves threaten the same vines. Aaron Whitlach is the main winemaker at the vineyard. After a scorcher, he borrowed a solution used by wineries in Australia to...

AARON WHITLACH: Prevent the berries from shriveling and turning into raisins.

ROMERO: The solution is simple - spray the leaves with liquid clay, acting like sunscreen protecting the grapes.

WHITLACH: It helped the leaves maintain their temperature and not fall off.

ROMERO: But even with this way of adapting to heat, Heminway questions the viability of her Zinfandel grapes.

HEMINWAY: I've thought about maybe considering a different varietal, but that doesn't really make sense because my father's legacy is founded on Zinfandel.

ROMERO: As long as her vines can withstand the smoke and sun, Heminway says she'll keep on making wine where her father did for nearly five decades.

For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Napa County.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN GOGOLL'S "ECHIDNA'S PARADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.