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Some wine grape growers turning to dry farming methods
Dry Farmed Wine FX1 5125417
Steve Thomas, director of vineyard operations, gestures while looking over an old vine Zinfandel planted in a dry-farmed vineyard at Kunde Estate in Kenwood, Friday, April 11, 2008. Many vintners are returning to "dry farming," driven by forces that range from concerns over dwindling water supplies, the belief it produces more intensely flavored fruit, or to forge a link with old traditions. - photo by Associated Press
    KENWOOD, Calif. — Vineyard manager Steve Thomas grasps the trunk of a zinfandel vine, a redwood of the vineyard, gnarled with age and planted in the days when irrigation meant a barrel of water on a horse-drawn cart.
    The work horses and carts are long gone. But these old zin vines at Kunde Estate in Sonoma County still get their water the old fashioned way, from rain, dew and a deep root system.
    They call it ‘‘dry farming,’’ which is what agriculture used to be before plastic hoses hooked up to a water supply made deserts bloom. A few vintners are returning to it.
    They are driven by concerns over dwindling water supplies, the belief it produces more intensely flavored fruit, and, in Kunde’s case, by a desire to return to old traditions.
    ‘‘What you find out is grape vines are incredibly adaptable,’’ said Thomas.
    At the 600-acre Kunde Estate, about 100 acres are dry-farmed. The rest are grown conventionally.
    Wine grapes are grown without artificial irrigation in parts of the world such as Spain and France, where some regions have laws forbidding use of irrigation, said Robert Wample, chair of the viticulture and enology at California State University, Fresno.
    Dry farming in California is unusual, although there is a trend toward using less water.
    ‘‘We’re learning to be much more precise early in the growing season so we can control the vegetative growth, minimize the total water consumption and then follow that with good management practices,’’ he said.
    Less water means more intensely flavored grapes and wines; too little water leads to raisins.
    Wample, who has studied irrigation techniques for years, sees irrigation as a useful tool in the winegrower’s arsenal, although he agrees careful water management is critical because of concerns about climate change.
    ‘‘The challenge is understanding how to best utilize water as a management tool,’’ he said.
    Dry farming starts before the vines are planted, said John Williams, founder and winemaker at the Frog’s Leap winery in the Napa Valley and a champion of dry farming.
    Farming dry means more than just not irrigating, Williams said. ‘‘It’s an active form of preserving moisture in the ground so you don’t need to irrigate.’’
    That turns out to involve getting up close and personal with dirt as fields are carefully cultivated, mulched and kept under close scrutiny.
    ‘‘Oh, it’s filthy, dirty work,’’ Williams said with a rueful laugh. The reward, he believes, ‘‘is wines much more deeply connected to the soil, wines much fuller in flavor.’’
    Thomas says dry farming is also about connecting to the past.
    He uses a truck, not a horse, to navigate the twists and turns of the terraced vineyards of Kunde Estate. But sometimes when he’s out in the fields seeing how the vines are doing, he thinks about past vineyard workers.
    ‘‘When I visualize a family member out here at the turn of the century behind a horse, plowing this thing, that’s pretty incredible when you think about it,’’ he said. ‘‘The fact that they’re pruning the same vines and worrying about the same things, frost and whatever else, this is a kind of commitment that’s passionate.’’

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