Rain water is the purest water than can be applied to the vines. Irrigation water is typically of low quality and high salinity, adding salts to the root zone. This free, clean water helps the vineyards that rely on drip irrigation to cut back on water usage, and provides much-needed water to the vineyards that dry farm.
Arid climates like California tend to have soils with high salinity and, much like human beings drinking seawater, vines can become dehydrated from salty soil. When salt levels get too high in vines, it can cause ‘leaf burn’ or browning. Rainfall benefits the vineyard by pushing the salt through the soil, allowing the vines to take up more water and absorb more nutrients.
A wet winter can also help condition the vines and assist in a more traditional cycle of grape growth. When a season of warmer weather arrives in the vineyard after a wet winter, it can help the vine transition naturally to growth and bud break. A warm, dry winter runs the risk of early bud break, and if it is followed by a cool, wet spring there is a risk that frost will damage the crop.
Winter rains are great for the soil and vines, but there is the risk of runoff and erosion if the rain falls at a high rate per hour, which can remove the top soil around the vines where cover crops aren’t grown. Alternatively, if the rain stays stagnant and drenches the soil too much, it can ‘drown’ vines that are not on well-drained soil. Rainfall can also cause soil compaction, which can have an adverse effect on vineyard production by reducing oxygen levels in the soil and making root growth more difficult.
That said, rain during winter has more potential to be beneficial than other times in the year. Prolonged damp conditions can lead to mold, mildew, and other diseases in any season, however there are additional concerns during the spring and fall.
Grapes are formed from flowers, and heavy rain can reduce crop sizes by knocking the blooms off of the plant in the spring. Grapes also need sunlight in order to ripen, and rain and a thick blanket of fog can delay harvest if the vines aren’t able to effectively photosynthesize. When rain falls on mature, fruit-bearing vines, the fruit takes up water, which can dilute flavor and throw off the sugar/acid balance, and if there is too much rain, the grapes may start to swell and split, which can cause spoilage and the increase the danger of mold and mildew.
Our vineyard is on a drip irrigation system and is monitored through in-soil sensors that measure the exact deficit of each vine so that no water is given unless necessary, and this rainfall allows us to extend the time between watering.
Like so many arid climates, our soils also contain a decent amount of salinity, and this rain has washed away the build-up, allowing the vines to drink more deeply and gain the nutrients they will need for the spring.
While the soil is sandy silt and we will need to water again before too long, the fast-draining soil mitigates the risk of flooding. We also have well-established cover crops, which slow the velocity of run-off and reduce erosion. They also help reduce the soil compaction caused by the rains, as the roots help keep the soils relatively soft and loose. (Keep an eye out for a future blog post to hear about the many benefits of Hilliard Bruce’s cover crop program!).
If we don’t get 1 inch of rain per month in the winter, then we will supplement by applying 1 inch of irrigation water via the sprinkler system. Sprinklers in the winter are better than drip because it covers the entire rooting zone rather than just that found directly under the emitters.
Irrigation management is very important in viticulture, and this just scratches the surface. What would you like to hear more about? Leave a comment or send us an email – we love learning, talking, and sharing information about our sustainable programs!
See you next month as we explore another aspect of our SIP Certified vineyard and LEED Silver winery!
One morning each month I spend a few hours with our core vineyard team here at Hilliard Bruce discussing the important topics of the moment. In the early spring it is bud break. Mid-Spring brings flowering and (hopefully) warm temperatures. Early summer is canopy growth and fruit set. Mid-summer is crop estimates and vineyard health. Late summer is veraison, when grapes begin to change color from bright green towards their final destiny. On our July 17th meeting, one tiny section of Pinot Noir had just begun to blush – a very exciting time even for hardened industry insiders. It marks a new beginning of the season as we count down toward harvest.
During our last vineyard tour, Shannon Gledhill, pest management advisor and viticulturist for Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, spoke with me about our SIP program, as she is also responsible for implementing and maintaining our compliance. She is an inspiration to be with as her knowledge, dedication and joy toward her work is irrepressible. I was curious to understand why more vineyards in our area are not SIP certified, as she will often reference the program during the course of our meetings. One of the main issues in understanding what SIP means is connecting simply and clearly to clients and consumers. While “organic” is relatively understood by consumers, “biodynamic” practices are a bit cloudier, leaving SIP – a relatively new program on the agricultural scene within the last 20 years - at a disadvantage in communicating and marketing its message. I have been to general SIP meetings in the past and I had no idea that we (meaning Shannon) had to document how often we clean our drip irrigation lines throughout the property.
While organic and biodynamic farms can also be SIP certified, the standards and rigor of SIP go well beyond these programs. While they all share interests in biodiversity and habitat, soil conservation and approved pesticide use, SIP also includes water and energy conservation, social responsibility and sound business practices. SIP takes the whole farm system into consideration – plants, people and the environment.
What is the goal of SIP Certification?
It is a way of documenting a vineyard’s dedication to sustainable farming. It has parameters that need to be reached and metric goals associated with it, so it shows a farm’s commitment to the process.
How many vineyards in Santa Barbara County are SIP Certified?
The beautiful thing is that John Hilliard was part of the pilot program ten years ago. At the time there were only 8 vineyards involved in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. Locally John was one of 2. Now the program is across California and Michigan and there are over 200 vineyards that are SIP certified.
Why is there still only a small handful of SIP certified vineyards in in Santa Barbara County?
It is really intensive. It takes multiple weeks to fill out the paperwork. To document all of these steps is a huge commitment. It is far more difficult to be SIP certified than organically certified.
Do you think it is beneficial program for a vineyard to be involved in and why?
That is a difficult question. I don’t think the vineyards themselves are receiving any benefits even though it is an amazing program.
Do you mean economic benefits?
Yes absolutely. It is about communicating what the word sustainable actually means to our consumers, colleagues and vineyard clients.
What does sustainable mean?
It means dedication to the environment. To the employees on the ranch. To the longevity of the ranch itself. The details that are covered are incredible. It involves water quality, energy usage, fair treatment of employees, fair wages, insurance, health care, proper training, having good neighbor relations, making the best choices for not only your vineyard but understanding that your choices effect everything outside the property line - everything that you can imagine.
Do you think vineyards that are not SIP certified are less responsible?
No, though if you have made that decision to be SIP Certified it makes you look at your farming practices more clearly and more in depth. I think it makes people better farmers just going through the process. Unless someone actually goes through the process, he or she may not think about these details.
Are you saying that the process makes owners and farmers more mindful of everything they are doing overall for themselves and their neighbors?
Yes, that has been my experience.
Before you got involved with SIP at Hilliard Bruce what are some of the things that surprised you the most?
Probably the water usage. The fact that you have to keep detailed records makes you way more aware. For me it was the water usage, and honestly, we used less than I thought we did.
Would you encourage everyone to get involved in SIP certification?
I feel it is definitely the right way to farm. It is just the economics of it all. That is a really hard conversation to have.
For the consumer then, SIP certification guarantees awareness, consciousness and mindfulness of every facet of farming and human endeavor on the ranch?
More than they would even understand.
For more information please check out the SIP website:
If you have visited the winery recently, you probably met me in the tasting room. You can often find me there, pouring John & Christine's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and talking about how all of our wines are produced on the estate: from grape to glass.
Even though I've worked at Hilliard Bruce for almost a year and a half, it's not often that I make the trek out into the vineyard, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a tour with Shannon Gledhill of Coastal Vineyard Care. As soon as we drove out of the winery parking lot and into the vineyard, I thought, "Why don't I get out here more often?!"
After taking the tour, I was reminded of how awe-inspiring the property is, and feel compelled to share with you a few of the most fascinating facts that I learned:
...and that's just the beginning! There is always something new to learn, which is both daunting and exciting in equal measure. I drive past the vineyards at the front of the property almost every day, but it is another experience altogether to stand between the rows, learn about the agricultural side of winemaking, and look up close at what will -- in just a few short months -- become the 2018 vintage.
I hope that you will join us in the vineyard and experience Hilliard Bruce for yourself, either by joining us on an upcoming vineyard tour or by making an appointment to come taste with us. It is our pleasure to host you!