California drought conditions continue, as do wine growers’ efforts to cope

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Seventy-five percent of California’s water goes to agriculture, so drought conditions are affecting that entire industry, including wine country.  As of July 13th, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 70% of California was experiencing “severe” drought conditions.

Wine growers are using a variety of tools to nurture the vines through another great harvest, all within a context of deficit irrigation (DC).  Deficit irrigation is the practice of reserving water only for the growth stages of the vines.

With that in place, viticulturists turn to soil moisture sensors.  As the name implies, these indicate the level of moisture in the soil; data can be compared and decisions then made about irrigation.

The use of Pressure Chamber (Pressure Bomb) technology has also gained ground among premium grape growers.  This tool monitors the stress level (i.e., need for water) in a vine.

This year, some grape growers have also been quick to prune away unnecessary vegetation on the vine so that water use will be reduced.

A few are even turning to dousers as a drought fighter.  Dousers claim they can tell where water lies beneath the surface by walking with long wands that respond with telltale movements.  The property owner then makes a decision about whether or not to drill a well at that spot.

Digging ever deeper into the aquifer (underground water) is another option, and it has become a hot topic statewide. According to the California Water Foundation, 40% of the water Californians use in a typical year comes from the ground. During the drought, that percentage has jumped to 65%.  Declines in the water table in various parts of the state, such as Paso Robles, have aroused concern.

3 Ways Wine Labels Can Fool You

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When you face the “wall of wine” in your local supermarket, you really need to be like Sherlock Holmes. Because wine labels can lie.

In fact, they lie a lot.

Here are three ways wine labels can fool you.

1.  The Pretty Label: Okay, you can admit it — we all have done it — buy the wine because of the label.  A cute giraffe, a pretty horse, some fabulous colors — and we reach for that bottle as if in a trance.

So, first thing — a pretty bottle is only that.  It has zero to do with what’s inside.

2.  The Winery Name:  It can so alluring and inviting, you just assume there’s quality behind it.  Or even, a real winery behind it.  But there may not be.  The “winery” may be just an operation buying already blended wines from less than great terroir, then blending into together in huge vats.  Chateau Fantasia may be just that.

3.  The wine description:  On the back label, there are often tasting notes.  They may have very little to do with how the wine actually tastes.

So there you have it.  Looking for high quality, limited production wines from small family wineries?  You’re at the source!    Enjoy  an ongoing wine adventure with The California Wine Club — great wines and pretty labels, too.

A Special Toast to the Grape Growers

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With so many smaller wineries these days not owning vineyards, small grape growers have more opportunities than ever before to find a buyer for their fruit.

This wasn’t always the case.  Back in the day, wineries mostly had their own vineyards. Louis Lucas, a viticultural pioneer in Santa Barbara County, who began Lucas & Llewellen Cellars with Royce Llewellen in Santa Ynez in 1996, knows all about the ups and downs of grapegrowing.  “Back then, for a grape grower the big question was, can you sell your grapes? As a grape grower, you have a window of three weeks to sell your grapes.  As a winemaker, you have two to three years to sell your wine,” Louis told us.

So it’s no wonder Louis and other growers sometimes made wine out of the grapes they couldn’t sell.  “Working with winemakers like Dan Gehrs helped me grow the type of grape I should grow for the wine,” Louis said.  “As a grower, it made me think of what’s needed in the winery.”

During the decades, the wine industry was developing in Santa Barbara with growers exploring terroir and trying various things. But the development of the wineries themselves took a very long time, according to Louis.

“When I look back 44 years, we came here in 1968-69 and there were three or four tiny grape growers. Today there are 20,000 acres of grapes.”  Louis has seen Santa Barbara County wineries increase to 150+.  Now, there is a real market to sell his grapes — and a terrific variety of wineries for us to enjoy.

Is it Time for A Wine Notebook?

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If you fall in love with a wine one night, but cannot remember its name the next day — well, it might be time to start a wine journal. It’s easy and can provide some really wonderful memories later on. It can also give you some insights about your own wine path and how your palate evolves over the years.

You’ll need a notebook, or a 3-ring binder, or a bound blank book to get started.  With so many crafters out there these days doing scrapbooks, some of you might want to create a wine scrapbook instead. Up to you!

The purpose of your Wine Journal is to remind you of which wines you enjoyed, and didn’t enjoy.  “What was the wonderful red wine we had at dinner with the Smiths?”  Now you’ll know.

What to Record?

First, the basics:  The wine name, vintage, appellation and winery.

Be sure to add the date.  It will help give you a chronological snapshot of how your wine tastes evolve. Paste in the label if you have it.

Your tasting notes:  They don’t have to be complicated, but it’s nice when you can note a change in your perception of a wine, say, a big Cab that seemed very tannic at first but later became your best friend.

Fellow tasters, and what they thought:  Who was with you when you tasted the wine, and did they like it? Did everyone like it but you?  Were you the only one who loved it? Important info, when you’re thinking of pouring this wine for a party.

Pairing:  Note the food the wine was paired with (if any).  Did the pairing work for you? Why?

Special Notes: Was there something unusual about this wine you’d like to remember?  A very special winery story, an incredible vineyard, a high alcohol level, an incredibly reasonable price?

Make your notes, tuck away your Wine Journal and then watch it grow every time you add a page.  As it grows, so will your knowledge of wine and of yourself as a wine lover.  Enjoy!

The Best Wine Party? Here it is:

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As wine and food lovers, we enjoy being invited over for some great wine, food and company.  But, like everybody else, we’re busy.  It’s tough to entertain much.  How can we get together with our wine loving friends more often to enjoy a great Cab or fantastic seafood?

Here is our idea of the best wine party:

Take a core group of your friends, and suggest monthly, or bi-monthly Wine ‘n Appetizer parties. Everyone brings an appetizer and a bottle of wine, paired together for great flavors.  The burden of food, wine and venue is shared, and everybody wins.

Depending on the group, you might decide one month to make the wines all Zin or all Chard.  Or you could make it all Rhones with all pasta appetizers.  Or whatever.

It’s an easy, fun and inexpensive way to broaden your wine and food horizons and enjoy your friends.  Just in time for summer!

Upping Their Game

As American wine lovers become more discerning about wine and more aware of its many nuances, California wineries are upping their game.

For example, Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles recently started planted 14 acres of vines in San Miguel, in the northern part of Paso.  “We like the terrain,” said Mike Baretta, winemaker.  “It’s rolling hills, unlike our estate, plus there is a lot of calcium and shale in the soil.”

Those nuances of soil and aspect will yield different flavor profiles than Le Vigne now boasts and add complexity to the wine.  We are all lucky to be enjoying an era of Golden State winemaking that is promising skill and care in the bottle from many small family wineries at very affordable prices.aa

Mike Baretta, right, with Bruce at Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles.  A new vineyard means new nuance for Le Vigne wines.

How to Find Great Accommodation Values in Wine Country?

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Let’s face it.  Staying in wine country can be pricey.  To keep the lid on accommodation expenses, here are some tips:

•  Off-season and mid-week specials. During the winter, there are significant savings to be had throughout California wine country.

• Stay on the outskirts: Instead of a hotel in Napa Valley or Sonoma, try American Canyon, Santa Rosa or Petaluma.  In Temecula, choose a hotel in town.

• B&Bs: Some are costly. Many are not. The owners are usually your hosts as well, therefore, B&Bs can offer a rich source of firsthand savvy about the local wineries and attractions. And the breakfasts are typically fantastic.

Got a tip on balancing a budget in wine country? We’re all ears!