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Emeritus Vineyards, including the Hallberg Ranch estate in in the Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley, takes the long view when planting and nurturing their vines, opting for a dry-farming approach. It’s all about encouraging the vines to adapt to our dry, California climate, without irrigating.

Dry farmed grapes at Hallberg Ranch (Kent Harrison photo)
Dry farmed grapes at Hallberg Ranch (Kent Harrison photo)

Dry farming has a very long history. In the Mediterranean region, crops such as olives and grapes have been dry farmed for thousands of years. Even today, vast swaths of Spain, Greece, France, and Italy dry farm these crops, and in some regions of Europe it is illegal to irrigate wine grapes during the growing season, with the belief that the water will dilute the quality of the grapes.

Our earliest Sonoma County growers were fans of this practice. The famous California wines that won the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting were all dry farmed. Some local examples remain. For example Martinelli Winery and Vineyards still dry farms their 130-year-old zinfandel vineyards on Martinelli road. They are head pruned with no trellising and get all their water from the underground water table.

Now a newer generation of winemakers is embracing dry farming. Bernier Farms in Dry Creek Valley specializes in dry-farmed grapes and many different vegetables and fruits. Paul Bernier has been dry farming grapes in Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys for over 40 years.

Sonoma County’s Emeritus Vineyards has been exclusively dry farming its two estate vineyards, Hallberg Ranch and Pinot Hill, since 2013. When Emeritus vineyard manager Kirk Lokka and founder Brice Cutrer Jones began transitioning Hallberg Ranch to dry farming in 2007, their main goal was to grow better Pinot Noir.

Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka (Emeritus Vineyards photo)
Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka (Emeritus Vineyards photo)

“Beyond the environmental benefits, which are significant, we believe dry farming makes for better pinot noir,” says Kirk, who correlates dry farming with great flavor concentration. The hard part? it can take years for deeper root systems to develop. It may take as long as five years for a dry-farmed vineyard to start producing. And you have to have the right soil, capable of retaining moisture, so sandy soils or heavily fractured soils are not ideal

The Hallberg Ranch property has Goldridge soil underlain with clay loam, and when dry-farmed the vines will dig deep into the earth to depths of over 20 feet in search of water stored in the clay. Those ultra-deep roots capture the unique composition of minerals, rocks and soils, with these deep flavors represented in the wine.

Pinot Hill has a similar soil profile, Goldridge soil underlain with Los Osos clay. Today, these two vineyards combine to give Emeritus almost 150 acres of pinot noir, making Emeritus the largest dry-farmed pinot noir estate in Sonoma County, and possibly in all of California.

If Emeritus were irrigating conventionally, they would be using up to one acre-foot of water, which is 323,000 gallons/acre. With close to 150 acres in vine, they’re saving over 46 million gallons/year. That’s enough water for over 4800 average California households a year. Wow!

Roger Coryell
Author: Roger Coryell

Roger is the Executive Director of California Community Voices