Establishing a Dry-Farmed Vineyard

dryfarmingvineyardFor many wine consumers—and even some of us in the industry—the term “dry farming” conjures up images of gnarled old Zinfandel vines in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Foothills. But dry farmed vineyards exist all over the state, and during the past year Atlas Vineyard Management has helped property owners convert one traditionally irrigated vineyard to dry farming and developed another site using the practice.

A prominent wine family in the Coombsville area of Napa County approached Mike Cybulski, co-founder and president of Atlas, wanting to plant a vineyard around their home. Strict water regulations concerning wells in the town dictate that no more can water be used than is replenished, which left just one option: dry farming.

Crunching Numbers

As a jumping-off point Mike created a spreadsheet that analyzes climate data, soil type and vine spacing to predict when a vine will run out of water. Based on his calculations, planting the Coombsville site at 6-foot row spacing would lead to vines running out of water by July, developing a vineyard with 10-foot row spacing would allow them to have water all year.

For the Coombsville vineyard, Mike ripped the soil to a depth of 6 feet, where the moisture level is more hospitable for the vines. Rather than using dormant benchgraft, Mike selected 110R rootstock because it gets vines down into the soil even faster.

Along the way he consulted with Frank Leeds, a good friend and partner in Leeds & Pesch Vineyard Consulting. Frank and his daughter, Lauren, are experts in dry farming and offered some useful tips such as keeping the soil completely free of weeds. Vines in a dry-farmed vineyard are going to have a tough enough time getting the water they need without competing with thirsty invasive plants.

Even if there don’t appear to be any weeds, Leeds & Pesch recommends cultivating the soil every two weeks. The practice conserves soil moisture. The practice makes the dry soil puffy; Mike likens the consistency to “moon dust”.

Establishing the vineyard

In spite of the name, dry farmed vineyards need to be irrigated two or three times per year during their first couple of years. But because the vineyards don’t have any irrigation lines installed, the watering process is different than simply flipping a switch.


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