Tasting the wines in the spring 2014 VINsider Club shipment
Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, Decanter's 2014 Men of the Year

After our recent rain, reassessing California's drought

Since last Wednesday, we've received 5.71 inches of glorious rain.  It was nicely spread out, starting with two inches the first day, followed by thirteen hundredths the next, then another two inches Friday, another inch Saturday, and finally a half-inch yesterday.  That meant it nearly all soaked in, rather than ran off.  Essentially, it was just what the doctor ordered. 

For those of you keeping score, the last week more than doubled our rainfall for the 2013-2014 winter.  We've now topped 8 inches and are at about 40% of normal for this date... a much better-looking figure than the 15% of normal we were at a week ago.

And the landscape has been transformed even over the last week.  The palette of hard, dry grey-browns has been replaced by softer outlines and lush greens, ethereal in the softer light filtered through air with moisture in it.  From this morning, looking south from the top of the vineyard:

Mar 02 View over vineyard

And looking north from roughly the same spot:

Mar 02 View down through Marsanne 2

Of course, these landscapes are more like what we'd normally expect to see in December than those we typically see in March.  Compare the above photos, taken this morning, with the below one, taken last March 6th:

2013 March 6th

We expect the cover crops to explode into rapid growth, now that they have had some rain. So, within a month or so, it will likely be hard to tell that the rainy season started so late this year. But start late, it did.

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, we're now much happier about the prospects for a healthy vineyard for the 2014 growing season.  We've been able to stop supplementing with drip irrigation, and to get back to focusing on pruning for the upcoming season.  But because the soils were so dry, and absorbed the water so efficiently, the rain didn't do much to replenish the many ponds, lakes and reservoirs in the area. The percentage of capacity at our two local reservoirs barely budged over the last week, with Lake Nacimiento's level increasing 33 inches (from 21% capacity to 23% capacity) and Lake San Antonio's level increasing just 5 inches, remaining at 5% capacity.  And most smaller ponds and reservoirs showed little more improvement.  Las Tablas Creek, after five days of rain, was still dry this morning, without even a trickle running:

Mar 02 View of Las Tablas Creek

If the surface ponds and lakes showed so little improvement from the rain, the ground water is likely to be even less affected.  On the positive side, most vineyards won't need to draw as much on their wells and reservoirs, for a month or two at least, which should allow them to recover somewhat.  But in order to make a significant impact on the drought-writ-large, we'd likely need three or four more storms like the one we saw last week. While we can still expect some precipitation until the end of April, catching up even to an average year is not likely.

And here's where we see one other benefit of the largely dry-farmed vineyard we've developed over the last two decades.  The vines are trained to be self-sufficient, and will benefit more from the new water that is now being stored in the bedrock than vines whose root systems have been trained to look for water near the surface, under their drip lines.  So, they'll look where there's water, while vineyards who rely on irrigation will be forced to draw on underground sources that didn't see much help from the storm.

In better news for California, areas around and north of the Bay Area not only got a good soaking from this storm, but got significant rainfall (5-12 inches) the week of February 3rd and look like they'll continue to get significant rainfall this week from a plume of tropical moisture that stretches across the pacific from Hawaii to northern California. The North Coast is likely to be above 50% of normal year-to-date rainfall after this week, and snow accumulations in the Sierra Nevada are, while still low, not as critically low as they were a month ago.

So, while no one in California is declaring victory over our drought, and while it seems that the local stresses on our water supplies are unlikely to be much ameliorated -- let alone solved -- by this storm, we're now feeling at least OK about our prospects for getting our vines through the ripening cycle without them running out of water, and it seems that California's drought has gone from critical to severe.  And that's something to celebrate.