Californian wine: Trouble in paradise

California is the latest major wine-producing region to struggle with Mother Nature after a drought emergency gripped the Golden State.

Governor Gavin Newsom has issued a “drought emergency proclamation” for 41 of the state’s 58 counties as a result of above average temperatures and dry conditions in April and May. Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse said the situation is very worrisome for local winemakers.

Across the state, producers expect the drought to severely diminish yields from the vines. The quality is often fantastic in drought years, but a sharp cut in quantity is problematic for winemakers and adds to growing fears of an impending global wine shortage.

It follows brutal late-spring frost across France and northern Italy. Estimates suggest that up to 80% of French vineyards have been impacted. The Languedoc is expected to lose around half of its 2021 harvest, while the Rhône will be down by 80% to 90%, and Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire are also affected.

Elsewhere, trade body New Zealand Winegrowers reported that the crop size is significantly down on previous years. Brancott Estate producer Pernod Ricard said it would be unable to meet global demand for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as a result.

In some areas of California, it is so dry that farmers are not even bothering to plant crops this season. That has sparked fears of food price inflation in the US, as the state produces a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruit and nuts.

“Due to severe drought, for the first time in 21 years, we will not be able to grow this summer in Petaluma,” said County Line Harvest farm in an Instagram post. It has also led to worries around the ferocity of this year’s wildfire season.


For the state’s grape growers, another short harvest could create significant hardship. Last year’s harvest in Sonoma County was down by around 40% compared to an average vintage, so growers are already feeling the pinch, and this year’s drought will only compound matters.

The two US senators for California mentioned the drought in a letter they sent to the White House this month. The letter asked US trade representative Katherine Tai and commerce secretary Gina Raimondo to lobby China to halt its 54% tariff on American wine, and to lift 25% tariffs on wines imported from the EU. The senators fear that Europe will introduce retaliatory tariffs on Californian wine. Senator Jeff Merkeley of Oregon also signed it, piling pressure on trade officials to negotiate an end to the various tariff wars.

“Wineries in our states are already under siege by the pandemic, wildfires, and now drought,” the senators wrote. “Many will not survive if they are also asked to indefinitely sustain a damaging trade war.”

In response to growing concerns over drought and climate change, 20 growers from Sonoma County recently completed the first US climate adaptation pilot scheme for agriculture. They found that up to 2,184 metric tons of CO2 equivalents can be removed annually from the atmosphere.

The California Land Stewardship Institute provided growers with specific information on soil types, site features, and details of agricultural practices that affect greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration, including planting cover crops, tillage, irrigation, and nitrogen use. The pilot scheme also looked at where natural areas of oaks, creek corridors and wetlands are located on the farm and where additional native plantings could sequester carbon.

“We take great pride in our environmental leadership and we were honoured to be presented the opportunity to be the first agricultural participants in the Climate Adaptation Certification pilot program,” said Sonoma County Winegrowers’ Kruse.

“We now know so much more about carbon sequestration than we did just a year ago and the results are really impressive. Given this success, we are working with CLSI to expand the pilot to include additional vineyard sites around the county.”