Growing grapes, four years into the drought

18c28fe4-6cb7-42fd-b11b-975b1e361781Santa Barbara County’s wine harvest is complete. Local winemakers are fermenting their last grapes, cleaning the presses and scrubbing down their gear after months of hard work.

“There are four words that describe the harvest,” says Lompoc winemaker Peter Work about this year’s yield. “It was early, short, light and the quality was amazing,”

That’s been a common occurrence throughout the county. Compared to last year’s bumper crop, Work’s grape harvest was only 40 percent as large this year.

Pointing a finger may seem easy at first: the drought. Less water and drier soil means less grapes. But last year was also a drought, and the year before that as well.

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Photo: Ampelos Cellars

Work has a hypothesis.

“The vines have been producing such high yields for three years in a row, that they’re just compensating. They’re basically saying, ‘okay, I can’t make as much any longer, let me just take a little break and I’ll come back next year,'” he said.

In other words, they’ve been working extra hard the last few years because there hasn’t been much water, and this year they simply couldn’t produce much.

Matt Kettmann, editor of the Santa Barbara Independent and Wine Enthusiast, said many winemakers feel the drought has led to a more interesting tasting wine. But, he warns of a breaking point.

“In the long run, the drought is not good for anything,” said Kettmann. “Wine growing is all about stressing the vines to a certain level, but if you stress them too much, they’re going to die.”

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Photos: Ampelos Cellars

Consumers may worry a light year may mean higher bottle prices. But, as far as Work’s Ampelos Cellars brand goes, you won’t see a price hike.

“The first thing anyone with an MBA will say is if there’s less supply you can put the prices up,” said Work. “Well, it doesn’t quite work that way in our industry. We keep our prices consistent from year to year. We’ve done that since our first release 12 years ago, and we plan to keep it like that.”

Kettmann said many winemakers do this to retain customer loyalty.

“You do see a slow, steady uptick over the years, but for the most part it’s not reactive to particular harvest loads or quality levels,” said Kettmann.

One direct result of the drought, Kettmann predicts, is fewer new vineyards being planted. “It’s really hard to establish vineyards without any water.”

Grapes are in no way alone in this phenomenon. Many Santa Barbara farmers have noticed this year’s produce grew smaller than normal, but made up for its size in flavor.

“I think these drastic changes is something you’re seeing across the world, with various crops and weather patterns,” said Kettmann. “How it all comes together is too complicated to say in any definitive way.”

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Photo: Ampelos Cellars

Matt Kettmann catches up with us every Wednesday morning and afternoon on 88.7 FM in Santa Barbara. You can hear his past segments on food and wine here.