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Dancin’ goes dry

2021 was Dancin’ Vineyards’ first full year of dry farming. They almost made it last year, but in the first week of September there was a heat spell and they needed to do a little drip dance to prevent shrivel in some of their vines.

What does this mean you ask? A whole lot.

There are some things that pair well — dry farming and terroir are among them. The concept of terroir, which translates as “taste of place,” is based in the practice of dry farming, which is the original and most sustainable way of farming.

Dry farming relies 100% on rainfall, natural soil and water conditions. There is no irrigation. The modern drip-irrigation system was invented in the 1940s by a Polish-Israeli inventor, Simcha Blass. This system certainly has a positive place in modern agriculture, but up until that time, for 9,000 years, vineyards were managed without it, and it doesn’t appear there was a shortage of wine.

When irrigated, it’s said the roots become complacent, they don’t have to “struggle” in their search for water, and grapes tend to take on a year by year “uniformity,” producing less intensity, complexity and distinctiveness. It’s in the search for water that the roots pull in the taste of place character from the soil and then concentrate the flavors in the fruit, which is expressed through the wine.

The original vines at Dancin’ Vineyards were planted in 2009-2010. Co-owner Dan Marca says, “My goal from Day 1, in that quest for dry farming, was to just continuously limit what we do. Starting in year two, what we’ve been able to do, year by year, is move the date in which we began irrigation out by a week, out by two weeks. … We have a unique site here— northeast-facing, 1,800 feet average elevation, and shade early in the day. That’s why we do cool climate pinot noir.

“We have sensors in the ground for moisture, for heat, etc., and then, I have a shovel. People laugh because they see me with a shovel. I’ll dig down a couple of feet, put soil in some baggies and show them the moisture. You can make a ball with this soil. It doesn’t need more moisture.”

He also points out a correlation he’s noticed in the past five years. “When there’s snow on Mount McLoughlin, we’re typically good down here. It’s interesting, when that snow is completely gone, we’re starting to dry out in our soil.”

One effect of dry farming is lower yield. “Yield was down by 30%,” Dan says, “so there’s a cost factor. But on the other side there is a quality factor because small berries equal more intense fruit.”

Aspiring to enhance distinctive terroir in wines, France and other European countries prohibit a vineyard from being part of an appellation if irrigation is used. This means that a wine that claims to be from Burgundy, the motherland of pinot noir and chardonnay, has been dry farmed. Here, in the west of the New World, water is a scarce commodity, and as Dan emphasizes, “I want to conserve water wherever I can.” In doing so, he is following an age-old tradition of wine-making that provides sustainability in support of life while creating a quality wine to help in celebrating it.

Reach Paula Bandy at pbthegrapevine@gmail.com and connect with her on Instagram at @pbthroughthegrapevine.