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.
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.