Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cerro Prieto....water, water, everywhere...

With apologies to the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner which most will remember from high school,

                       Water, water, everywhere,
                       and all the boards did shrink,
                       Water, water, everywhere,
                       yet not a drop to drink.

This poem was about a sailing ship, becalmed somewhere just south of the equator, with water, salt water, around them, but no drinking(sweet) water onboard, hence, not a drop to drink. Well, here in Paso Robles we don't have the salt water as an issue, but we do have an issue of "not a drop to drink" on our East side. This past year, 4 large wineries planted 8000 new acres of vines on the E. side of Paso (there is nowhere near that kind of acreage on the W. side, and if available, it is in tiny chunks, and probably straight up and straight down). The Paso Robles aquifer is famous as a massive underground body of water that has been there for millions of years, and has sustained the city, residents on E. side of Paso, plus hundreds of acres of winegrapes on the E. side. The 4 large wineries must have known what each of the others were doing, in that most of the 8000 acres went in pretty much at the same time. The drain on the PR aquifer was too much, and those 8000 acres were the final straw that took water from long time residents, many of whom are retired, and left them with dry wells.

Even tho the water table on the E. side dropped as much as 100 to120 feet in some areas, many of the longtime residents had wells drilled to no more than 120 feet , or in some cases less. For them new wells were necessitated, but retired and on fixed income, a deep well, maybe 450 to 500 feet or more, was just not in the budget for many of these long time residents. Some have already moved, others looking for buyers of their now devalued property, since they were without water. This all brings to a head something that has been inevitable for some time now: just how much water can winegrape growers and huge wineries consume before it put enormous strain on the water basin's ability to supply well as wineries/ grape growers? The question has now been answered, and the county supervisors of  San Luis Obispo, have now put a moratorium on drilling on Paso's E. well in, and one comes out.

I have a number of friends and former patients living on the E. side, and they have been blindsided by this acute lack of water...altho the discussion of "what if" has been ongoing for quite some time. But it isn't just the people living is other wineries and vineyards that also have been impacted on this obvious overload of the Paso Robles aquifer. The zero sum "one in and one out" re: water wells is fine for the people who still have water. For others, they have had to scramble to drill deeper and deeper yet. We have, in a nutshell, reached an impass.

There is the other side of Paso, however, our W. side...and that is where Cerro Prieto resides, as you all know. We have precious little to scarce water here on the westside, completely independent of anything that goes on in the E. side. Here, if you can find a nook or cranny that holds water, you are by rights extremely fortunate. For example, our house well produces 7 gallons/minute, but only for short periods of time, and then has to recharge. Having a holding tank for house use was a must. The vineyard well, however, is HUGE...producing 450 gallons/minute with a compression airlift(ie, air forced under great pressure down the well casing). Our water is from 100 to 215 feet, and our pump is set at 120 feet. With a tiny 20 hp. pump, it produces 120 gal/min. With a 40 hp pump, it produces 240 gal/min, and so on. Without doubt, we have one of the largest wells I know of on the W. side.

Putting Cerro Prieto vineyard in was subject to finding an adequate water source. It was fate, good luck or what have you that we found water, and that was the final linchpin  to putting in a vineyard. Actually, we have planted all but another terraced mountainside (~ 6 acres) and a 7 acre valley which would only accommodate cold weather whites. So, altho the E. side troubles do not affect us directly, indirectly they do in that whatever water we have and vines we have planted are basically most of  those that will be planted on the W. side, other than 20 acres, here, maybe 30 acres there, and so on. Before the 8000 acre plantings, Paso Robles expansion of vineyards seemed limitless. Now we know where the limit is... and it has been surpassed. In time this will be worked out, but there never is an unlimited supply of anything...time, money, good health, and in this case, unfortunately, water.

Well that is the news. Now for the good news. Another great year for quality for our westside vineyard and wines appears to be in the offing. We are in the teeth of a 15  month drought, and have started to irrigate our vines 12 hours at a time. Last year was an excellent year but the crop load was greatly decreased. Instead of the 2.5 to 3 tons/acre of grapes we produce for selling, we got only in the 1.7 tons/acre last yr. Those were a fantastic 1.7 tons/acre, but there just wasn't much of it. Hence we have begun watering, something we generally haven't done since planting in 1999 and 3 yrs thereafter. Once the vines were into production we cut back to essentially dry farming, unless high temperatures exceeding 110 degrees required some several gallons of water per vine. As you all may recall, last year we had a 6 day course of 117 degrees, cooling off to a mere 60 degrees at nite. So yes we did irrigate last year but they were truly remarkable exceptions.
Last remnants of fall.

Now, however, vine status appears desperately in need of water, so we are irrigating. This has no effect on quality of wines, unless we were to water from August on. Usually by that time the rains from the previous year have given our vines all the water they needed.  This year we very well may water right up to that time, tho not on a daily basis. We are initially just trying to play catch up...and are in hopes that we may yet get some much needed rain. Right now the high pressure areas sitting over the top of us do not allow the low pressure fronts containing that much needed water to visit. In sum, barring a hurricane, or 70 knot winds in March/ April, or 117 degree heat in June, we are in great shape to have a superb year. One never likes to say that emphatically, so note that I said "we are in great shape to have"...I did not make a guarantee. We should have our usual hot summer, but won't know about rainfall until the high pressure areas leave us.

Basically our vineyard is as dry as a bone, and definitely needs an assist. Thank the good Lord for by chance happening being on this side of hiway 101 than the E.side. My heart goes out to all those good folks on the E. side impacted by this drought + new 8000 acres, but it had to happen sometime, I suppose.  Our wines are doing fine, and I need to bottle some 2011 Pinot Noir from an incredibly cold year, which means that it will be exquisite. Also a tad of Syrah, but it always is sensational. Syrah as a varietal has proven to be the most ubiquitous grape in the Paso Robles AVA. It seems to do well in rich black earth, solid limestone(like ours), in the mountains or on the plains. It likes it hot, or cold...doesn't seem to matter, tho I thought it would. The remainder of our grapes were spectacular last year, and the Cab and Syrah in barrel from 2012 are already showing signs of a great year. 2013 Merlot and Syrah are right on target for great wines also.

One new addition which some of you have met is Sombra, who is taking over for our best friend Cazadora, who passed away on Christmas eve, 2012. She will never be forgotten, but we have another heart stealer now,  Sombra, who is guarding the vineyard and is queen of our home. She is still a bit shy, but welcomes people easily, and is a great companion. When you visit she will come introduce herself.

That is it from here, and thank you all for making another great year for us. As you have heard before, "We don't make much, but what little we do make is, well...drinkable."


No comments:

Post a Comment