Wineries go dry, but not how you think
For thousands of years, vintners have sought out the perfect region, the perfect soil and the perfect climate for growing grapes.
Quantity rarely trumped quality, and a given vintage’s worth and character was directly related to the climatic conditions of the year in which it was produced.
There exists an almost mythological significance to some of the vines from various geographic locations throughout the world. Famous regions are thought to imbue the fruit with the ineffable qualities of the land itself.
Much of this is changing. In an age of market forces and corporate growers, a large portion of the wine industry has been less concerned with the romance of old-world viticulture.
To maximize profit, many wineries irrigate to ensure a certain production, a relatively new practice in the history of the craft. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the first irrigation system was built in Napa.
But John Paul, winemaker and owner of Cameron Winery in Dundee, believes passionately in doing things the old way. After a stint at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied marine biology, Paul switched gears and made his way to the Napa Valley to learn the art of winemaking.
Always a champion of sustainability and sound environmental policy, he brought his ideals to Oregon, where he began his present endeavor — Cameron.
He was committed to dry-farming his vineyards from the beginning.
“On average, it takes about twice as long to establish a vineyard using dry farm practices versus irrigation,” Paul says, “but the result is a heartier, stronger fruit.”
Heartier indeed; some of Cameron’s vines reach 25 feet down into the earth to find water. “Even physiologically the plant is different. Our leaves aren’t as lush and green because the plant can’t afford to be physiologically wasteful. The taste is different too, but that’s a whole other story.”
Paul took his ideals one step further, and several years ago started the Deep Roots Coalition, a group of several Oregon wineries that follow the same concepts.
“Part of being a winemaker is being a good steward of the land; water is a very finite resource in Oregon, and abuse will imperil the future of the Oregon wine industry,” Paul says.
Deep Roots members include Cameron Winery, Evesham Wood, Brickhouse, Beaux Freres, Patricia Green, Thomas Winery, J. Christopher Winery, Eyrie Vineyards and Westry Wines. But the group is by no means exclusive.
“Not every dry-farmed vineyard in Oregon is a member, but anyone who agrees with our philosophy should join,” Paul says. For him, grape growing should be based on its traditional roots: “It’s all about soil, weather and luck.”
John Devoe is executive director of Waterwatch of Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit concerned with river flow levels, and is well-versed in Oregon’s water issues.
“Some farmers are doing things right, like developing drip irrigation methods and the dry-farming techniques like Deep Roots Coalition, and water issues are different from region to region,” he says. “But it’s a myth to believe there is excess water we can just dole out.”
For the consumer, buying a sustainably raised wine can be difficult.
Some producers state nonirrigated or dry-framed on their labels, but others don’t, even if they practice environmentally friendly growing habits.
Ultimately, consumer choices drive success or failure in the industry, but the stigma of elitism in the wine world can scare the average wine buyer from asking too many questions.
Paul, a self-described wine geek, says the answer is simple: “My advice is this: Get to know your wine merchant — don’t be intimidated. If they don’t know if the grapes are dry-farmed, tell them to find out.”