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Why Oregon Winemakers Are Embracing Dry Farming

As far as the history of winemaking goes, drip irrigation is a pretty new development—going back only to the late 1960s—and one a growing chorus of winemakers and viticulturalists say is better left behind. Oregon’s deep roots coalition (drc) has been beating the dry farming drum in earnest for nearly two decades. Led by a former scientist and galvanized by the memory of the legendary winemaker who started the movement, their message is picking up steam. Driven by sustainability principles and terroir, drc members commit to halting irrigation once their new vines bear fruit. They also agree not to make wines with fruit purchased from vineyards that irrigate.

The Case for Quality

“If you irrigate, you shouldn’t even get to talk about terroir,” says John Paul, drc cofounder, and owner-winemaker at Cameron Winery in Dundee. Taking the hard line and championing growing vines with only the rainfall that nature provides helps drc members to make what Paul claims are “the best wines in Oregon.”

Paul’s views on irrigation and the drc’s roots trace back to mid- to late-1970s California. Paul was living in the Bay Area when, during his routine wine country drives, he noticed that new vineyards were popping up all over Napa Valley. “Spurrier’s tasting in Paris put Napa on the map, and suddenly investment money was flowing from San Francisco into the valley,” Paul says.

Young Scientist John Paul
Young Scientist John Paul / Image courtesy of John Paul

He also noticed the new vineyards were littered with irrigation lines, the use of which had exploded. While Paul suspected irrigation was meant to maximize yields and speed investment returns, he knew it would also alter the quality of the fruit. Paul remembers thinking, “These plants, with their massive canopies, are just going to generate sucrose [sugar] that will go straight to the grape.” And he’s done the work to back up the claim.

At that time, Paul was a postdoc at U.C. Berkeley. His mentor Melvin Calvin won the 1961 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work using radioactive isotopes and chromatography to trace carbon’s path during the stages of photosynthesis. Calling it his “greatest contribution to academia,” Paul used Calvin’s equipment for an experiment that showed that grape leaves transport only sucrose to the rest of the plant. As the sucrose molecule enters a grape, an enzyme cleaves it into its component parts of glucose and fructose.

Thoughts of irrigation faded when Paul traded academia for winemaking and eventually moved to Dundee Hills, Oregon. There he was surrounded by the irrigation-free vineyards of the relatively wet Willamette Valley. That dry-farming utopia lasted just a few short years.

Drop by Drop

In the late 1980s, Australian vintner Brian Croser arrived on the scene in Dundee. He was persuasive when it came to promoting irrigation. In 1988, Croser convinced the late Cal Knudsen to install the Willamette Valley’s first drip irrigation system in his estate vineyard atop the Dundee Hills.

As irrigation spread in his own backyard, Paul was soon discussing dry farming with his friend, the late Russ Rainey of Evesham Wood. The dynamic dry-farming duo soon used their wine labels to proudly advertise their non-irrigated vines to consumers.

To educate consumers and influence vineyard owners, Paul decided to form a group to get the word out. “Russ was the idea man, and I was the action guy, so I started calling people like Mike Etzel at Beaux Frères, Doug Tunnell at Brick House and David Lett at The Eyrie Vineyards,” Paul says.

The loose-knit dry-farming group founded by Rainey and Paul went nameless until 2006 when Paul’s assistant Kyle Cheney cheekily suggested a “deep roots coalition.” Paul insisted on using lower-case letters to avoid confusion with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. So far, no letters written on French legal stationery have arrived at drc headquarters.

The name also draws attention to the benefits of forcing a vine’s roots deep into the ground to find water. Paul says irrigated vines are physiologically different from dry-farmed vines because they stay close to the surface, where they find more nutrients than they would deep in the subsoil. He credits this nutritional boost with larger crops and diminished fruit quality. Rainey agreed, believing irrigating and training vines to remain near the surface was as detrimental to fruit quality as overcropping.

Jim Prosser, a drc member and owner of J.K. Carriere, concurs with this logic. “Dry-farmed vines seem more likely to hang smaller clusters, with smaller berries and therefore more concentration. Honestly, I’m not really looking to make wines of less concentration.”

Quality issues were kept in the background when the drc first started, much to Paul’s chagrin. “I wanted to get in people’s faces about high-alcohol wines and quality, but Russ always suggested taking it easy.” Rainey and Paul agreed on the quality issue but, says Paul, “Russ was a diplomat who wanted to emphasize sustainability issues early on to avoid confrontations.”

Erin Nuccio, Rainey’s former assistant and current Evesham Wood owner, says the idea of wasting water on a crop that didn’t need it never made sense to Rainey. He recalls a favorite Rainey line: “If there’s not sufficient water to grow grapevines, perhaps that land is better suited to grow something like onions.”

Tyson Crowley, owner and winemaker of Crowley Wines at our March 2019 wine trade tasting at Barcino in San Francisco
Tyson Crowley, owner and winemaker of Crowley Wines at our March 2019 wine trade tasting at Barcino in San Francisco / Image courtesy of Suzanne Bayard

A Dry Outlook

Rainey and Paul made a great team, despite being polar opposites in many ways. Rainey came from a retail wine background in the Midwest, with a reserved, calm manner. Paul came to winemaking from the scientific world with a high-octane personality. One thing they did have in common: sharp minds. “When they got together, you could almost see the brain cells bouncing around the space between them,” Nuccio says.

Paul concedes that Rainey’s diplomatic approach was the right move. It helped boost drc membership from six to more than 30 wineries, including Frog’s Leap in Rutherford, California, which joined in late 2022 and is notably the first member outside Oregon. With Rainey’s death this past July, the drc looks to honor his diplomatic legacy as they approach new challenges, such as water scarcity.

The drc’s position has always been that while irrigation may remain feasible over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, it is an unsustainable practice over the long term. They say that water scarcity, whether caused by drought, population growth outstripping demand, or supply disruptions due to faulty reservoirs and infrastructure, will be difficult to avoid.

Early signs of trouble in the Willamette Valley include wells being dug on new vineyard properties that aren’t hitting water in some locations. “Water is not a slam dunk in these hills; it is a scarce commodity. Our aquifers are definitely going down, likely due to heavy irrigation. What’s happening in California is coming here,” Paul warns.

Tyson Crowley is drc president and owner of Crowley Wines. He says it would be arrogant for the drc to think they are the only wine group thinking about water issues like these—and surely they are not, though they have set a model for cooperation in the face of a changing environment. He is moving to reach out to other wine regions in Oregon and states like California and Washington to learn more about their local water issues and needs.

Crowley acknowledges it will be a challenging and contentious path where some of that old Rainey diplomacy will likely come in handy.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!