The wine industry represented 6.5 percent — or $1.9 billion — of San Luis Obispo County’s gross domestic product in 2015, according to a University of California, Davis study. The same study pointed out that more than 13,000 out of 136,000 jobs in the county are directly related to the hospitality industry sustained by wine tasters and visitors to the wine country.
The industry’s well-being affects everyone. Because of the industry’s importance and increased vulnerability due to the California drought, land managers look to sustainable practices for better navigation of the road ahead — drought or no drought.
The last six years were the most extreme drought in California’s recorded history, which held the state’s agriculture in a tightening headlock as water resources became increasingly scarce. One plentiful winter of rainfall and the times of desperation seem to have come to an end. April 7, Governor Jerry Brown released a simple statement on the complex, pervasive and seemingly ever-present issue that is the drought.
“The drought emergency is over,” Brown said.
Brown’s statement wasn’t totally nonchalant. He made it clear the next drought could be just around the corner. Even if he hadn’t included that qualifier, California agriculture has swallowed too many seasons of cracked land and dead cattle to return to business as usual.
Tolosa Vineyards and its chief winemaker Jim Kress embrace the change. The vineyard covers 730 acres of land along Edna Road, across from the airport.
In 2015, Tolosa hired Kress as a winemaker. Among other things, his duties include implementing more sustainable practices while ensuring the continued quality of vintages.
“The idea is that we want to be sustainable — good stewards of the land — and, at the same time, maintain the health of our vines and the quality of the wine. It’s a balancing act,” Kress said.
Graphic by Kristine Xu
Although the drought was declared over, Kress said Tolosa doesn’t plan to return to the practices and mentality widely held before the drought.
“We’re still not out of the concern,” Kress said. “I don’t see people abusing [the declaration] going forward.”
Kress hoped a cautious agriculture industry with sustainability in mind will be better prepared for future droughts.
“I think it’s important, all of the changes people have made,” he said. “That will help going forward in the event that there are more drought years and we kind of have to expect that that’ll happen. I don’t have a crystal ball for sure.”
According to Kress, that means avoiding over-irrigation of crops through close monitoring. New technologies in the field make that process more efficient. Among Tolosa’s weapons against an uncertain future is normalized difference water index (NDVI), which Kress says can measure water saturation in the ground and help managers more effectively decide when to water the vines.
“Water is an issue and from that standpoint we’ve taken a lot of steps over the years as far as what we would best term ‘sustainability,’’’ Kress said. “The winery is 100 percent solar. We recycle all of our processed waste water. We have ponds that we’re able to store that in and then subsequently use for irrigation.”
When irrigating, he said the recycled water can account for up to half of the water Tolosa uses.
Video by Sam Pryor
While Kress walked and talked through long rows of grapevines, the sound of construction equipment occupied the background. Behind him, a tractor ripped out lawn and brush. Kress paused.
“You’ll notice that we just tore out our lawn,” he said. “The idea is to put in more drought-tolerant [flora].”
The story at Tolosa is similar to the experiences of vineyards across San Luis Obispo County. However, Kress is only one voice, and Tolosa is only one producer amongst hundreds of other vineyards.
Pacific Vineyard Company
Pacific Vineyard Company (PVC) is a vineyard management company operating in South San Luis Obispo County. Erin Amaral is a vineyard manager for PVC where she’s worked for almost two decades.
Amaral doesn’t plan on treating the vineyard any differently in response to Brown’s announcement.
“Just because Jerry Brown deems the drought over doesn’t mean that I want to turn on the irrigation,” Amaral said.
Similarly to Tolosa, Amaral said new technology makes land management much more efficient than in the past. Amaral actually suspects the drought forced some of the new technologies to arrive more quickly, by necessity.
“It seems like there’s a correlation with the drought that it’s pushed these technologies to progress,” Amaral said.
Amaral continued to express apprehension about turning on irrigation. She said she doesn’t need to right now thanks to the plentiful rain, but that even in more arid situations, water costs money — a lot of money, she said.
In San Luis Obispo County, the issue of water cost and availability varies, but few places face bigger challenges than in and around Cambria. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that townspeople were buying container tanks to be filled with trucked-in water for use on their plants and gardens.
Lisa Miller, the proprietor at Cutruzzola Vineyards in Cambria, said the drought’s effects were most serious during 2015 and 2016. She’s proud of the vintage that year, but said the volume was miniscule.
“We harvested less than one ton to the acre for our pinot noir,” Miller said. “That’s pretty tough on a five-acre parcel. We made eight barrels of pinot noir in 2016.”
In 2013, Cutruzzola produced 28 barrels of the same varietal.
That year, Cutruzzola considered expansion. Miller said the vineyard ultimately decided against it. In 2015, their well completely dried up. The vineyard dodged a bullet.
Today, Miller said the vineyard largely relies on dry farming to maintain its vines. When asked about whether Cutruzzola was reconsidering an expansion now that the drought was decidedly over, she spoke cautiously.
“I’m glad to see the water coming back online, but it needs to be more than a year,” Miller said. “We got a decent, appreciable amount of rain this year, but we need to get more sustainable I think, before we feel good about planting.”
The water emergency was declared over, but scars and dispositions from the past few years aren’t going anywhere. Kress, Amaral and Miller might be more comfortable than they were a year ago, but they’re not going to turn on the water unless they have to — and now they have the technology and minds to pick their battles more carefully.
Graphic by Kristine Xu