Smith-Madrone in The New York Times on the subject of dry farming

Drought Brings Soul Searching to California Winemaking

New York Times, August 20, 2015

By Eric Asimov

St. HELENA, Calif. — At the rustic Smith-Madrone Vineyards high up on Spring Mountain, nobody has been thinking about the drought, which has absorbed so much of the conversation about California this year. Instead, concerns have been about the unnaturally warm stretch in January and February, which set the growing season in motion early. Then came a cold snap in May, which caused many growers to lose 40 to 50 percent of their crop. Then, a cooler-than-expected July, and, for much of Napa Valley, an early harvest in August.

“It’s been a normally bizarre year,” said Stuart Smith, who, with his brother, Charles, has seen a lot of weather extremes in their 44 years growing grapes and making wine at Smith-Madrone. Now he’s worried mostly about forest fires.

The drought may have turned all of California into a pitiless desert in the popular imagination, but a week in July spent visiting fine-wine regions all around the state painted a more nuanced picture. Across the state…the drought has caused soul-searching in the wine industry, even at places like Smith-Madrone, as wineries rethink how they use water and the way they do business. And everywhere, the fervent hope is that El Niño, the periodic ocean weather system, will bring rains this winter to renew Western water supplies.

While agriculture has generally been portrayed as California’s thirstiest industry, absorbing a high percentage of scarce resources, grape vines are not among the prime offenders. They are tenacious survivors, genetically programmed to thrive where other plants cannot.

At Smith-Madrone, Stuart Smith has become convinced that dry-farming is the way to go, not just because he thinks it results in better wine but because water in California has always been a moral issue. He said he’s seen far too many vineyards irrigated to achieve a garden-like beauty, to the detriment of both wine and water supplies. “From a wine-quality and a responsible-citizen position, we should all use less water,” he said. “Wine growers can make better wines and be better ecological neighbors if they thought about vineyards differently.”

Did you know Smith-Madrone dry-farms?

Smith-Madrone is included in a list of dry-farmed vineyards:

Community Alliance With Family Farmers: Dry-Farmed Vineyards

Dry-farmed vineyards do not receive any irrigation. Water held in the soils from winter precipitation provides the necessary water for vine growth. Many dry-farm growers do minimally irrigate new vines for the first 1 to 3 years of production to help establish the rootstock and the vine. To learn more about dry farming practices, visit the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiatives’ Dry Farming Practice Page.
Included in this list are a few vineyards that may receive supplemental winter irrigation. In some dryer areas of CA, there are years when winter rains are insufficient to fill the soils with the necessary water to support dry-farmed vines. CAFF has spoken with growers who, depending on the year, will irrigate vines in the winter dormant period to help fill the soils. Although these vineyards are not technically dry-farmed every year, CAFF has included them because there is no irrigation during the growing season, and growers are using valuable dry-farming techniques. If a vineyard may receive winter irrigation, it is clearly stated in the description of the vineyard.

Dry-farmed vineyards can be found throughout California. Below is a list of vineyards by area.

Smith-Madrone Vineyard, Napa Valley
This dry-farmed vineyard was established in 1972 as 20-acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling. Vines were planted on their own roots and on steep slopes some with over a 30% grade. Over the years, the vineyard has developed and is now 34-acres comprised of 6.25-acres of Riesling, 10.25-acres of Chardonnay, and 13-acres of Chardonnay. Read more about wines from Smith-Madrone and watch of Stu Smith explaining their dry-farming practices.