Dry Farming Grapes: How, and Why, this Long-Forgotten Art is Attracting Local Winemakers
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that vineyard irrigation was introduced in California and dry farming fell by the wayside. It was, however, dry-farmed wines that won the milestone “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting in 1976, making California a major player ever since.
Today the art of dry farming is experiencing a revival in San Diego, if only on a small scale. We spoke to three local winemakers about why they decided to add dryfarmed grapes to the mix.
Al Stehly, owner
298 Enterprise St., Suite D
How did you get into the winemaking business?
We had been growing and managing avocados and citrus in North San Diego County, so growing grapes seemed like a natural extension. Our first vintage was in 2009 and we started selling wine in 2012.
Where are your grapes sourced?
We manage about 50 acres of vines from which grapes are sourced. They are small, custom vineyards where the fruit is hand pruned and hand harvested. My own vineyard, which replaced avocado trees, is located on a hilltop in Valley Center.
And that’s where you’re dry farming?
It’s not 100% dry farmed. We irrigate the root stock to help them get started, then gradually wean them off the water.
Is it because of the drought?
That’s just one of the reasons. We can get better-quality grapes with less water, because the more they’re stressed from lack of water, the smaller they are, with more intense flavors and color.
Eric Van Drunen, winemaker
1477 University Ave.
How did you get into winemaking?
We started Vinavanti in San Marcos in 2007, subleasing 100 square feet in the back of another winery. It wasn’t until 2008 that we started doing our own thing.
What do you mean by that?
I found “big red” California wine kind of tiresome, with nothing distinctive or interesting. We wanted to return to the true nature of the grape and terroir. So we became the first San Diego wine to be certified organic. We’re always trying to make our wine more interesting, which is why we have ventured into dry farming.
Where do you source your dryfarmed grapes?
From a tiny vineyard in Ramona—just 50 vines—that dates from the 1930s. The owner hadn’t touched it for years, so it was completely overgrown. She told us “you clean it up, knock yourselves out and have fun!”
Chris Broomell, winemaker
15030 Vesper Rd., Valley Center
What led you to start experimenting with dry farming?
The premium wineries in Europe have always been dry farmed, although they do allow irrigation the first year or two. So I figured, if they can dry farm in France and Spain where it only gets eight to 12 inches of rain, why can’t we do it here?
And you’re doing it on a very small scale?
We have a few dry-farm blocks at Triple B. Even though there’s an irrigation system, I’ve been farming them without irrigation for the last four to five years. Plus I have a block at my house that is dry farmed.
Since dry farming yields fewer grapes, does that mean the wine costs more?
It can. But it’s more interesting and more Intense.