Paso Robles Water Wars: Can It Happen in Solano County?

Flickr: Michael W MurphyHere's my column from the 9/20/14 edition of the Reporter.  Note: Last week's hail doesn't count!

My Facebook feed is awash in a sea of grapes, images posted by local wineries of the mouthwatering harvest coming in.

I love Harvest. Soon it will be time for my next favorite season: Rain. At least I hope so.

The excitement of harvest and the lush pictures of grapes is a welcome distraction from the other images in our landscape.

The hills we optimistically call "gold" cannot be called anything but brown these days. They are colored not from the grass, once green and now beige, but from the dust showing through the balding thatch.

Nowhere is it as brown as it is in Paso Robles, where the sight of dusty ridges suggest a crisis even more alarming that our third year of drought.

The aquifer that feeds Paso Robles agriculture has declined dramatically and the expansion of vineyards is being blamed. The result? In the last two years, while wineries have converted 4,000 acres of range land into vineyards, the wells of rural homeowners have gone dry.

In 2013, the supervisors of San Luis Obispo county where Paso Robles is located, called for a moratorium on the planting of new vineyards, the same year Paso Robles was named "Wine Region of the Year" by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Could this happen here? It is unlikely.

Most vineyards in Solano County are irrigated with water from Lake Berryessa and not dependent on an invisible aquifer with debatable water rights.


According to Jim Allan, Solano County's agriculture commissioner, "We're very fortunate that we just don't seem to have that problem because of the availability of surface water. We've had pretty much adequate groundwater recharge so that the people who are using wells have not had to go a whole lot deeper."

This is good news, since we city dwellers appreciate our farming neighbors. We're grateful for the open space, farm stands and of course, local wine.

"Solano County has been graced with water because of good planning in the 1950s," said Roger King, a grower with vineyards in Suisun Valley and Shale Peak near Vacaville. "Paso thought they had a aquifer that could never be dropped and just expanded like hell in vineyards and homes."

One of the more troubling upshots of the Paso Robles situation is that despite the wine industry's annual contribution of $200 million to the local economy, the water fights have turned many Paso Robles area residents against vintners. Foreign investors who have recently entered the wine economy are especially easy targets.

The California legislature recently sent a three-bill package to the governor's desk, proposing state regulation of aquifer management in those cases where local entities fail to protect over drafted groundwater. The governor signed the legislation on Tuesday.

Many farmers are skeptical about a change to the current system, expecting bureaucracy and a loss of local control. On the other side, water advocates worry that the recharging of the state's aquifers will take many, many years, even with state control.

So we wish, we pray, and maybe even dance for rain. It won't be long, we hope, that waves of grass return to the hills and vast lakes return underground.

In a climate like ours water will always be a contentious subject.

But one thing we can agree upon, what we could really use, soon, is some rain.



Napa's Dirty Little Secret: We Drink Cheap Wine Too

Fall in NapaOr should I say inexpensive. 

Once again I was thanking my lucky stars last night as I dined with ten friends on a Napa hillside, overlooking the Napa River, and the San Pablo Bay beyond.

Dozens of wineries with hundred dollar cabernets were just over the ridge and you can bet their wine clubs set up dinners just like the one we were having.

What do real people in Napa drink for dinner with friends? There was a Sliver Oak cab from the Alexander Valley, a pinot noir from a boutique vineyard next door and a $15 Norton Malbec from Argentina.  Bold and spicy, this was actually the wine I liked best with my vegetable lasagna and meatballs.

Living well is the best revenge, and when you don’t have to pay for it you don’t even feel particularly revengeful.


Leave That Tomato Alone! 

I couldn't find a picture of the offending food, this one is from the Gallery of Regrettable Food website goodness it’s grape harvest, otherwise the shortening days and the end to tomato season would have me in a funk.  As I ponder the end, at least for this year, of those big, fat, multihued heirlooms I am reminded of a particular tomato travesty I witnessed during a recent trip to the Midwest.

It was at Zingerman’s, a deli  based in Ann Arbor, Michigan that is known for its locally sourced food, benevolent work environment and a management consulting business touted by the likes of the New York Times. Yep, that’s right. “Business Visioning” and CEO seminars from a deli.

When I was there,  both Zingermans and I were having an off day.  They were super busy, service wasn’t great and I made myself a little sick because I had to try their artisanal brewed root beer.  Delicious, I’m glad I tried it, but hardly a way to start a meal. 

 I can’t remember what I ate but I’ll never forget what I saw. Next to me was a couple sharing a beautiful heirloom tomato desecrated with a gloppy mess of cheddar cheese spread and I don’t know what all.  

Why would anyone do that to a tomato?

It may be (sigh) that Midwesterners demand this kind of food; a delicate leaf of basil and fresh mozzarella would just not taste….tasty enough.  Midwestern winemakers must heave a similar sigh when local tastes demand sugary wine, with no chance of the delicate play of acid and sweet that makes wine drinking so glass-swirlingly fun.  

I love my midwestern roots and there’s is nothing I’d rather eat than a plate of kielbasa and buttered noodles. Sometimes I think, hey maybe we should just stick to that and leave the heirloom tomatoes to the Californians.



Chardonnay's Black Sheep Ancestor

Researchers were unsurprised when they found that Chardonnay was a direct descendant of the Pinot variety.  The surprise was that if Pinot was the mother, a variety called Gouais blanc was the father, a variety so far on the other side of the tracks that is it is no longer grown in France or the U.S. In fact, according to an article in UC Davis Magazine (Winter 2000) “several unsuccessful attempts to ban it were made in the Middle Ages.”

Carole Meredith is the same grape DNA authority that conclusively proved that Petite Sirah, a variety grown in California whose provenance was uncertain, was in fact Durif. Another grape the French gave up on. Possibly because in their wetter climate the tight clusters develop rot.

If God forbid your daughter runs off with a low life miscreant, tattooed and unemployed, take heart from the mighty Chardonnay. Your grandchildren may turn out OK. According to Meredith, Gouais blanc and Pinot have been successful parents, perhaps because of their genetic diversity.



This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on 12/31/13.


Roger King has the gift of gab. I caught up with him at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative this week where he riffed, part professor and part bartender, on everything from histamines in grape skins to the water engineering of Solano pioneers.


His ability to talk, with interest and certainty, about almost anything served him well in as a marketing executive for Kirkwood Ski Resort and now as the president of the Suisun Valley Vintners and Grapegrowers Association. Even as a young man an air of certainty was evident. When his law school dean told him his test scores were good and leaving would mean starting again from the beginning, King replied, "You don't get it! I don't want to be one of you bungholes." Except he didn't say "bunghole." King tells it like it is.


If you like to know where your wine comes from, Roger is your man. His dead-on vineyard descriptions and their familiar landmarks are part of the joy of drinking his wines. His King Andrews Albarino comes from a vineyard in one of the cooler locations of Suisun Valley, across the street from Larry's Produce. Seventeen miles to the north, his Sangiovese is grown off of Shale Peak Lane, halfway up Mt. Vaca on the final ridgeline separating Vacaville from the Sacramento Valley.


The two vineyards are a study in contrasts. According to King, part of the albarino vineyard is sitting on an old creek that was diverted by some early farmers and is consequently so full of moisture it needs no irrigation.


King Andrews Zin block with view of Mt. Vaca from Yelp"I've been dry farming this for years but I call it my most irrigated vineyard," King said.


At the other extreme is the Shale Peak Vineyard, an arid location that clocked 117-degree temperatures earlier this year, with irrigation dependent on a well that goes dry as early as January. According to King, the heat is perfect for his Sangiovese, a field blend that includes cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.


"The heat is great for burning the acid down. The trick is to find the balance between getting the acids down and the alcohol not too high. It is a testament to the fact that grape vines will adapt."


King's barkeep lectures are almost entirely focused on location, soils and weather. Clearly, this is a man who believes in terroir, the environmental factors expressed in a wine that give it a sense of place. He is a minimalist winemaker, preferring vineyard management to experiments in the cellar. He ferments about half his wines with indigenous yeasts, a practice that requires fortitude and patience since they are less reliable than yeasts that are developed commercially.


He's bullish on Solano wine, citing the I-80 corridor as key to its success. However, he's cautious not to jump in so completely he becomes a "captive to selling wine."


King has a Facebook page but no retail or website, you'll find his wines only at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, which is not a hardship considering tastings are free. When you visit try the Albarino, with bright acidity and a fragrant whiff of spiced pears and a hint of lime zest on the finish. I tried the 2012 and 2013, which will be bottled this spring, just in time for warmer weather.


The King Andrews Sangiovese is a bold ruby, with medium structure and a play of cherries and raspberries that amplify in a spicy blend through the finish. See if you agree with the King of the Hill, that Vaca heat is the key to great wine.


Ann Miller is a Napa resident and wine enthusiast.