California’s wine fame can be traced back to a single event; a blind tasting competition in 1976, wherein a bottle of 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and a bottle of 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, bested the most prestigious French wines of the time in a blind tasting. This tasting came to be known as the “Judgment of Paris,” as memorialized by George Taber in his book of the same name, and it marked the meteoric rise of California’s reputation for fine wine.
At the time of the Judgment of Paris, California, and Napa in particular, was still seeking a wine identity. Vineyards were spread out, often poorly capitalized, and run by those who were driven by a passion to create wine. Drip irrigation was new and expensive, and good wine estates had carefully chosen vineyard sites that would naturally not need as much water. Deep soils, better micro-climates and well-chosen grapes were all important means of controlling costs. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and others were making a practical, rather than a philosophical, choice when dry farming their grapes.
After the Judgment of Paris, California wines couldn’t stay on the shelves, and wineries that were used to modest revenues saw an enormous jump. In an effort to give the people what they wanted, wineries expanded, planting new vineyards and investing in new equipment. Now, with more capital, it was possible to farm less desirable sites that might need significant irrigation to succeed. Additionally, even sites that had previously been dry farmed saw the installation of irrigation in order to lower variability and raise yields.
In the time since, California has continued to produce admirable wines, but with the recent drought, producers are beginning to reevaluate dry farming, not only because it saves water, but because of its role in Napa’s early success. And while turning off the tap may not be possible everywhere, by working with grapevines and understanding their innate ability to cope with stress, maybe we can save water while making even better wines.