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
FruitsDon’t Be Afraid To Charge More For Value Of Agritainment [Opinion]
February 28, 2015
A higher admission price helps to sets a level of expectation and helps offset the costs of running a successful farm marketing operation. Read More
Apples & PearsCompany Responsible For First GMO Apples Is Sold
February 27, 2015
Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the company behind the world's first non-browning apples, fetches $41 million. Read More
Stone FruitPeach Training Systems Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All
February 27, 2015
Although pedestrian, ladderless orchards are increasing in California, growers in Pennsylvania are opting for tall V-training systems. Read More
Apples & PearsThe Recession That Keeps On Taking
February 27, 2015
We’re still seeing the aftermath of the Great Recession on consumers’ purchasing habits seven years later. Read More
FruitsMaximize Produce Profits By Focusing On Soil Health
February 27, 2015
Cover crops are just one of the ways you can help boost your trees’ and vines’ performance and your bottom line. Read More
FNV logo
CitrusPMA Announces Funding For Major Produce Marketing Program
February 26, 2015
The produce industry is getting into brand marketing in a big way. The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has announced the launch of a new promotional campaign - FNV - designed to take a page from the marketing strategies of big-money consumer brands like Nike and Apple. Read More
GrapesWashington Winegrape Industry Announces Honors
February 26, 2015
Awards included Grower of the Year, Industry Service, Lifetime Achievement, Restaurant of the Year and Posters. Read More
The Latest
FruitsWest Coast Ports To Open With New Contract
March 3, 2015
Western fruit, vegetable industries lost millions when unable to export produce at ports. Read More
FruitsWorkshop Set In Florida To Help Grow Local Food Movemen…
March 2, 2015
Meeting part of nationwide effort to train people how to attain grants for USDA’s Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion programs. Read More
Citrus18 Must-Have Apps For GenNext Growers
March 1, 2015
We asked about your favorite mobile applications, and here's what you had to say. Read More
FruitsDon’t Be Afraid To Charge More For Value Of Agrit…
February 28, 2015
A higher admission price helps to sets a level of expectation and helps offset the costs of running a successful farm marketing operation. Read More
FruitsMaximize Produce Profits By Focusing On Soil Health
February 27, 2015
Cover crops are just one of the ways you can help boost your trees’ and vines’ performance and your bottom line. Read More
FNV logo
CitrusPMA Announces Funding For Major Produce Marketing Progr…
February 26, 2015
The produce industry is getting into brand marketing in a big way. The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) has announced the launch of a new promotional campaign - FNV - designed to take a page from the marketing strategies of big-money consumer brands like Nike and Apple. Read More
FruitsHave Faith In Science – Which Means GMOs [Opinion…
February 25, 2015
When it comes to farming, sticking with established, commonly accepted science is the way to go. Read More
Apples & PearsFrom The Road: IFTA Conference Day 4
February 25, 2015
Creating fruiting walls with mechanical hedgers can help increase light interception in the canopy, say researchers and growers. Read More
Food Safety“Dirty Dozen” List Authors Say Conventionally Grown Pro…
February 25, 2015
Sound science prevails and consumers are encouraged to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Read More
CitrusFDA, Federal Partners Develop New Method For Attributin…
February 25, 2015
Data was analyzed from nearly 1,000 outbreaks to assess which categories of foods were most responsible for making people sick. Read More
CitrusBiocontrols 2015: Exhibition Sneak Preview
February 25, 2015
We take a look inside the exhibit hall at the Biocontrols 2015 Conference & Tradeshow. Read More
CitrusNew App Helps Identify Insects, Diseases, And Nutrient …
February 24, 2015
Spensa Technologies launches app that helps growers take control of pests and improve soil nutrients. Read More
CitrusPacked Political Agenda On Tap For Florida Farmers
February 23, 2015
The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s board of directors are working on a number of key issues that will be front-burner throughout 2015. Read More
Apples & PearsThe State Of Mechanical Apple Harvesting
February 23, 2015
Breakthroughs in mechanization have been a long time coming, but recent advances combining the skills of both people and machines are bringing efficiencies to orchards of all sizes. Read More
Apples & PearsOn The Road With IFTA: Conference Day 1
February 21, 2015
Honeycrisp ― and the delicate balance between quality and profitability ― are the preconference workshop focus at this year's IFTA Conference. Read More
CitrusWest Coast Governors Call For End To Port Labor Impasse
February 19, 2015
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez helps mediate discussions between dockworkers and port operators. Read More
CitrusCompanion Biological Fungicide Now OMRI Listed
February 19, 2015
The biological fungicide from Growth Products is now registered for use in organic production. Read More
Crop ProtectionFMC Launches Biological Fungicide With New Mode Of Acti…
February 18, 2015
The broad spectrum fungicide, Fracture, is labeled for prevention and control of powdery mildew, botrytis, and brown rot blossom blight. Read More