San Diego Crop Profile: WinegrapesSan Diego winegrape production by the numbers:
Acres in production: 842*
Total value of winegrapes sold: $6,512,870*
Avg. cost per acre of new vineyard installation: $30,000. Includes labor, certified root stock, protective vine covers, stakes, irrigation, and trellising hardware.
Avg. annual cost per acre of vineyard maintenance: $5,000. Includes labor and water costs.
Annual water use per acre: dry farm up to 1 acre foot
*As reported in the 2013 Crop Statistics and Annual Report published by the office of the San Diego County Dept. of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
As Californians endure a third year of drought and calls for water conservation grow louder - while simultaneously there is certainty in water costs increasing and uncertain supply – San Diego growers are making shifts in their permanent crop selections. Winegrapes, vineyards, and wineries have been getting a lot of press by local media in recent months, and for good reason.
The Mission San Diego de Alcala off present day Mission Road in San Diego is credited as the home of the first sustained vineyard planted in California by Father Junipero Serra in 1779. Throughout the 1800’s small vineyards dotted the San Diego landscape and the California wine industry was flourishing, with many California wines winning competitions in Europe. By 1900 California wines were regularly being exported to Europe, Australia, and the Orient. It all came to a halt in 1920 with Prohibition. Wine production in the state fell 94% by 1925, and the industry in San Diego never recovered to what it once was.
Today, throughout the county growers are planting new vineyards. The number of acres planted to winegrapes has jumped 400% in the last two years. On many farms, especially in areas like Fallbrook, vineyards are moving into acreage previously occupied by thirsty avocado groves. The reason is vines take just a fraction of the water to produce a crop that avocados require. As more acres are converted to vineyards, it’s worth asking: what does it take to grow winegrapes in San Diego?
“Grape growing can be extremely nuanced,” says Chris Broomell. “Cultural practices in the vineyard need to be very well timed to produce the fruit you want to get from the vineyard.” Broomell is a third generation farmer from Valley Center, and is winemaker for Vesper Vineyards in Escondido. He also does vineyard and winery consultation. “Growing grapes isn’t easy; there’s about 25 different things throughout the season that can go wrong, minimum.” But, he says, “If you’re growing something that has any sort of good reputation, and growing it well, there’s not enough of it.”
That sentiment is echoed by Elaine Lyttleton, a Ramona grapegrower and winemaker and owner of Hatfield Creek Vineyards and Winery. “In our first year of production we sold our grapes to local winemakers for .55 cents a pound. But then, as the vines matured and aged, and we developed a reputation as a grower of good fruit, we sold our fruit for .80 cents a pound. I’ve heard now there are several growers charging $1 per pound.”
What makes a good winegrape? “I tell people every vine gets handled personally - not just driving through the rows - but each vine gets hands on treatment at least nine times during the grow season. Between pruning and training to the cordon and tucking the new growth between catch wires, leaf pulling, hitching. A lot of hands on work – that gets you really good grapes,” says Lyttleton.
“Grapevines are weeds; they’ll grow anywhere but that doesn’t mean they’ll produce good fruit,” says Broomell. “We’re seeing more attention to detail in every aspect of growing, and choosing the best variety for the vineyard site. Manipulation of the vines can work for you or can hurt you; if you leaf pull too late it’s a waste, too early and you’ll get sunburned fruit, but if you get it just right you’ll get the desired effect of better airflow and disease and mildew prevention and better quality fruit. Most cultural practices are done by hand; pruning, shoot thinning, leaf pulling, harvest. Annually, the most expensive cost in vineyards is labor.”
But finding experienced workers can be a challenge. Elaine Lyttleton describes a recent harvest. “During harvest this year, there was a team of workers conversant in grape harvesting; did a fine job, worked hard, got the harvest in. I called them to come in the next week, and they never showed. I wouldn’t have been able to get the harvest in if it hadn’t been for friends. Good working crews to help small vineyard owners are crucial. There are several vineyard installers around now, but from a maintenance standpoint laborers with winegrape experience are few and far between.”
Attention to detail, choosing the right variety of grape for the site, perfectly timed cultural practices; all requirements of producing a superior wine grape. What about soil and microclimate? Broomell explains, “the first thing I look for when I approach a future or existing planting are what species of native plants are growing around the site? What is growing naturally can tell a lot about the soil and climate of a particular site. From there a vineyard can be designed to best work in that space and find the grape variety that will do best.” In San Diego County that typically means southern varieties: southern Italian, southern Mediterranean, and Spanish. These include popular varieties like Syrah, Vigonier, and Sangiovese, and also some lesser known grapes like Tempranillo, Grenache, and Albarino.
Growing good grapes takes dedication and attention to detail, but the upshot gets back to what’s driving new plantings in the first place: water. Some growers like to stress the fruit with less water to get a certain result, other growers apply more. Suffice to say, there are grapes being grown in San Diego dry farmed with no irrigation, and with up to an acre foot of water per year. Either way you grow it, winegrapes are a crop with history, a growing market, and significantly less water cost than other traditional permanent crops. It’s a safe bet we’ve not seen the end of new vineyards.