California’s recent rainfalls have been catastrophic for many. But some wine industry experts say there may be an unexpected silver lining: Heavy rains seem to have not only recharged drought-thirsty aquifers and water tables, but also flushed away, or leached, toxic vineyard salt deposits.
This is no small thing. Salts in soil contain important micronutrients, but some—like sodium, chloride and boron—carry a toxic punch if left to accumulate, a problem exacerbated by California’s recent droughts. It’s a spot of good news in an otherwise dreary California news cycle.
Growing Condition Impacts
Without leaching, toxic salt deposits infiltrate vines and their root systems. This directly impacts growing conditions and vineyard productivity. “Our harvest 2022 was off by between 20% to 30%,” says Jeff Newton, president and CEO of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. The organization farms about 4,000 acres throughout Santa Barbara County. “One of the main reasons is that we just haven’t had the leaching that we’ve needed over the last several years.”
Salt-poisoned plants dehydrate, desiccate and even die. Leaves “burn,” or turn brown. Grape quality also suffers. “We have been in a very real drought these past few years, and with that, you get an accumulation of salt in the soils, which can impact the quality of the grapes,” says winemaker Ryan Prichard of Sonoma’s Three Sticks Wines. “These heavy rains help flush these salts out, and renew some of the life force in the soils.”
Not a Drop to Drink
Ironically, surface salt build-up can also contaminate ground and well water, resulting in salty irrigation water. “As our wells have been drawn down due to drought, we do end up irrigating with less quality water,” says Craig Ledbetter, vice president and partner at Vino Farms in Lodi. “Salt intrusion on the west side of Lodi is highly possible due to its location to the Delta, and its influence on ground water.”