How To Dry Farm Winegrapes

Dark Horse Vineyard  in Ukiah, CA,  shows the typical wide spacing of head-trained and dry-farmed vineyards. This photo was taken in May 2011. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)
Dark Horse Vineyard in Ukiah, CA, shows the typical wide spacing of head-trained and dry-farmed vineyards. This photo was taken in May 2011. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)

Dry farming refers to crop production in the dry season without supplemental irrigation. “This is the way everyone used to farm,” says Dave Osgood, a dry farmer in Paso Robles. Vineyards in California were dry farmed or flood/furrow irrigated until the 1970s when drip irrigation was introduced and changed the mainstream model for winegrape growing.

Dry Requirements
Although the minority, dry-farmed vineyards can still be found in every wine region in California, from vineyards planted in the late 1800s to newer vines from the 2000s. But not every vineyard site can be dry farmed, and dry farming requires vineyard management and design that support vine health and growth without irrigation. Vineyard techniques will vary for each site, but here are the key concepts and some general advice from dry farmers across California.

Site Selection
The vineyard site must have sufficient annual precipitation and soil-water-holding capacity to provide moisture over the dry growing season. Jean-Pierre Wolff, owner and vintner at Wolff Vineyards in San Luis Obispo, suggests looking up annual precipitation and average temperatures for the site, and taking soil samples.

  • 15 inches to 20 inches of annual rainfall is a good estimate of the minimum necessary to dry farm, although some farmers with excellent soils dry farm with 9 to 11 inches.
  • The best soils for holding water are clay loam or sandy loam; avoid very sandy or fractured soils.
  • Deep soils hold more water. “Nothing is drought tolerant on shallow soils,” says Andy Walker, a professor at University of California-Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. With only 2 to 3 feet of topsoil, it can be difficult to dry farm.

“See what grows there naturally,” Osgood adds. “If it is only dry grass land, then it may be hard to dry farm, but if you have oak trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses, then you have water in the soils.”

Dave Osgood’s dry-farmed and head-trained vineyard in Paso Robles, CA, taken this March. Usually, there would be a cover crop growing, but with the drought this year, Osgood has bare soils. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)
Dave Osgood’s dry-farmed and head-trained vineyard in Paso Robles, CA, taken this March. Usually, there would be a cover crop growing, but with the drought this year, Osgood has bare soils. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)

Variety And Rootstock
Variety selection will depend on the location of the vineyard. The most commonly dry-farmed variety is Zinfandel. More vigorous varieties such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier are also dry farmed. The most difficult varieties to dry farm? Pinot Noir and Barbera.

Rootstocks that promote deep and extensive root growth are necessary for dry farming; the vines will be able to find water sources deep in the soils. Growers should choose the rootstock that is matched with the vigor of the soil and scion, resistant to present soil-borne pests and diseases, as well as their dry farming needs. St. George, 1103 Paulsen, 110 Richter, and 140 Ruggeri are commonly used rootstocks.

Vineyard Architecture
Vine spacing in dry-farmed vineyards is larger than what is found in irrigated vineyards. Spacing will vary depending on the annual rainfall and soil conditions; the more rain and greater water-holding capacity of the soils, the closer together the vines can be planted. Vineyards in the North Coast are generally spaced at 8-by-8 feet or 9-by-9 feet, whereas down in hotter, drier regions like Paso Robles, the vine spacing is more commonly 10-by-10 feet or even 12-by-12 feet.

Most dry farmed vineyards in California are head trained. Walker indicates that vines trained to wire trellis systems can be dry farmed, but head training provides many benefits for dry farming: “head training promotes smaller vines with less wood, meaning that the vine uses less carbohydrates and less water. Head training also provides natural shade for the vine, allows for air flow in a hot climate, and allows for the cross cultivation of the rows.”

These dry-farmed vines at Bucklin Old Hill Ranch were planted in 1885 and are located in Sonoma, CA. This photo was taken in July 2010. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)
These dry-farmed vines at Bucklin Old Hill Ranch were planted in 1885 and are located in Sonoma, CA. This photo was taken in July 2010. (Photo credit: Community Alliance for Family Farmers)

Soil Management And Cultivation
Supporting healthy soils and increasing water-holding capacity is necessary to provide the vines with moisture during the dry season. Soil management and cultivation varies widely among growers and vineyard sites due to the particulars of the farm, but here are a few common practices:

  • Cover crops are planted in the winter and can increase the infiltration rate of winter rains into the soils and slow erosion. These crops increase soil organic matter and, if legumes such as beans are in the mix, they can provide nitrogen to the soils as well.
  • Most dry farmers will cross cultivate their rows as soon as the rains stop. Growers will mow down the cover crop and then disk the soils to mix in the decaying cover crop material and to create a 3 to 4 inches seal of soil known as “dust mulch.” This is a dry, even blanket of soil that traps in the deeper moisture and reduces evaporative losses from the soil.
  • Some growers practice no-till farming and simply mow down cover crops. This reduces soil disturbances and may increase soil organic matter.

The Economics Of Dry Farming
Lower yields due to fewer vines per acre and less available water are serious deterrents to dry farming. Every grower will have to determine economic feasibility of dry farming his piece of land. On average, a dry-farmed vineyard yields 2 to 3 tons per acre, whereas an irrigated vineyard for premium wine production may yield around four tons per acre, although this varies widely depending on location and practices. Further, risk of water stress due to lack of rain is a concern for dry farmers. Growers with drip lines have the equipment to irrigate if years are dry to prevent severe yield and economic losses, and it is this flexibility and risk control that dry farmers do not have.

With potentially lower yields and increased risk, why dry farm? Over and over again, growers and winemakers report that the quality of dry-farmed grapes is hard to beat. It is generally accepted that wine grape quality benefits from water stress, but in addition to the concentrated berries and flavors attributed to water deficits, dry-farmed vines, with their deep roots, are said to have a more unique expression of place. This is a hard thing to quantify but, as Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles writes in his blog, he believes that dry farming is the most important factor contributing to the lower alcohol, intensity, and balance of their wines.

With these dry-farmed grapes comes the possibility of higher prices, long-term contracts for growers, and high-quality wine production. “I sell all my (dry-farmed) grapes every year,” says Paul Bernier, a Sonoma County Grower, “and that is no small thing.”

Another economic factor is capital costs. Planting a head-pruned dry-farmed vineyard costs far less than planting an irrigated and trellised vineyard. Osgood indicates that it costs about $6,000 per acre to plant his dry-farmed vineyard, whereas irrigated and wire trellised vineyards can cost between $30,000 to $40,000 per acre (excluding land costs). However, it may also take three or four years for a dry-farmed vineyard to come into premium wine production, as compared to two years for some irrigated vineyards.

The ultimate determination on economic viability will be done on a grower-by-grower basis. But one thing is clear: dry farming is a passion. “Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t easy. But there is less to break, less to worry about compared to irrigated vineyards. It is like gardening,” Osgood says, leaning on his vines. “I’m out in the fields walking around, and I love these things.”

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

Fruits Stories
CitrusSenate OKs Trade Priorities And Accountability Act
May 26, 2015
Late on the evening of Friday, May 22, the U.S. Senate approved the Trade Priorities And Accountability Act (TPA) of Read More
Apples & PearsSolve Your Labor Problems From Within
May 26, 2015
Summer is here, which means harvest season is just around the corner. Hopefully you’ll have the crews you need this Read More
FruitsWater Conservation Grants Awarded In Pacific Northwest
May 26, 2015
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has awarded 17 Water Conservation Field Services Program (WCFSP) grants in the Pacific Northwest Region, Read More
Disease ControlPartnerships Key To Healthy Northwest Vines
May 26, 2015
Washington’s grape industry has seen accelerating growth over the past several decades. That momentum is owed, in part, to the Read More
Apples & PearsSounding Off On Record Purchase Of Apples
May 26, 2015
Recently USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service announced the purchase of 34.9 million pounds of fresh apples and 16.1 million pounds of Read More
Disease ControlInland Desert Nursery Is Main Source For Washington’s Clean Vines
May 26, 2015
The Judkins family has been in the business of clean grapevines for more than 40 years. Today, their Inland Desert Read More
Operation Outdoor Freedom participants
CitrusFlorida Proud To Be Home Of The Brave [Opinion]
May 25, 2015
Operation Outdoor Freedom invites wounded service members and veterans of the U.S. military to enjoy recreational activities in state forests and on private lands. Read More
The Latest
FruitsRegistration Is Open For 2015 International Fruit Tree …
May 26, 2015
Registration is now open for the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) 2015 Regional Study Tour. This registration includes hotel accommodations Read More
FruitsCalifornia’s Delta Growers To Cut Water Use By 25%
May 26, 2015
The California State Water Resources Control Board have approved a proposal from riparian water right holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Read More
CitrusSenate OKs Trade Priorities And Accountability Act
May 26, 2015
Late on the evening of Friday, May 22, the U.S. Senate approved the Trade Priorities And Accountability Act (TPA) of Read More
Apples & PearsSolve Your Labor Problems From Within
May 26, 2015
Summer is here, which means harvest season is just around the corner. Hopefully you’ll have the crews you need this Read More
FruitsWater Conservation Grants Awarded In Pacific Northwest
May 26, 2015
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has awarded 17 Water Conservation Field Services Program (WCFSP) grants in the Pacific Northwest Region, Read More
Operation Outdoor Freedom participants
CitrusFlorida Proud To Be Home Of The Brave [Opinion]
May 25, 2015
Operation Outdoor Freedom invites wounded service members and veterans of the U.S. military to enjoy recreational activities in state forests and on private lands. Read More
FruitsQ&A With Penn State’s New Young Grower Alliance Coo…
May 22, 2015
Erin Dugan recently joined Penn State University extension as a specialty crop innovations program manager and Young Grower Alliance coordinator. Read More
FruitsHow To Start A Young Grower Association
May 22, 2015
You have recently returned to your family’s business. You have friends and family you can tap for their knowledge and Read More
Expansion groundbreaking for Southwest Florida Research and Education Center
CitrusSouthwest Florida Research And Education Center Embraci…
May 20, 2015
A 7,000-square-foot addition to the UF/IFAS facility will house labs and offices for potential new faculty members. Read More
storm clouds
CitrusSouth Florida Rainy Season Could Wind Up On Drier Side
May 20, 2015
National Weather Service anticipating El Niño to play a hand in possible below-normal conditions. Read More
Food SafetyProduce Safety Alliance Offers Course To Become A Certi…
May 20, 2015
The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) has announced dates for their first two Train-the-Trainer courses this June. The first of the Read More
Fruits$10 Million Available For California Water Conservation…
May 19, 2015
Applications for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) California State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) are now Read More
CitrusBad Weather Or Not, Preparation Always On Radar For Flo…
May 19, 2015
You cannot prevent a natural disaster from taking everything you have, but you can lessen the blow if and when it happens. Read More
FruitsGreen Fruitworm Numbers High In Pennsylvania
May 19, 2015
In their latest insect report, David Biddinger and Grzegorz Krawczyk, tree fruit entomologists discuss the timing of pest control applications Read More
FruitsUSDA To Invest $21M To Help Growers Cope With Drought
May 18, 2015
USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will allocate $21 million for growers and ranchers to apply conservation practices in the Read More
BB Hobbs Inc. warehouse in Plant City, FL
CitrusBB Hobbs Bolsters Business In Central Florida
May 18, 2015
Irrigation specialists celebrate opening of new branch warehouse in Plant City. Read More
Disease ControlHow To Control Disease During Rainy Weather
May 18, 2015
The recent warm, wet weather conditions are prime for fungal and bacterial diseases, says Annemiek Schilder of Michigan State University Read More
FertilizerBioWorks Launches New Fertilizer And Biostimulant
May 15, 2015
BioWorks, Inc., launched ON-Gard, a new organic fertilizer and biostimulant. ON-Gard is a 100% plant-derived product with organic nitrogen and Read More