After a year of using our off-days to taste, Sarah and I threw in the towel. We visited a little over 100 tasting rooms in Paso. It is time to give that dream up. Besides, when your life is wine, it is nice to spend your off work hours well away from it. So for most of our recent days, we have plopped down at Bistro Laurent right off the square downtown. This is by far the most relaxing place for us to enjoy our lunches.
I can’t lie, on special occasions we still venture out to sample some of Paso’s finest. For instance, last week Joanne’s sister Kathy flew in. Naturally she wanted to taste and who are we not to turn away a day of free alcohol? Now that we have an established group we have seen, Sarah and I cycle through a list of our favorites to visit. This is normally an enjoyable event, but there was one nagging detail of our explorations. Nearly every tasting room personality in the county wanted to boast about how they are dry farmed, and how their grapes are so superb because they don’t get any added water…… Bullshit.
Dry farming is a practice that is very common in the Old World vineyards in Europe. For instance, the wine makers of France never have to water their crops due to the great amounts of rain they get in the off season. Their summers are fairly mild in temperature, and towards the final weeks of harvest they will get rain, wind, and even hail. That doesn’t happen in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, or anywhere else in the state of California. We are in the middle of the worst drought in recorded history. This past winter we got a grand total of 14 inches of rain. Californians haven’t seen so much as a single drop since well before spring. Additionally, Paso Robles has battled 4 heat waves this summer, one of which had 8 consecutive days over 102.
With severe temperatures like this, you can’t dry farm. If one were to do this their crop would turn to dust. And I can speak from experience; at Rabbit Ridge’s reserve vineyard we have let several blocks of grapes go unwatered. These vines lack any fruit whatsoever. To further that, the blocks that have been watered regularly are struggling. So when you puff your chest and quote how, “our vines are all dry farmed and haven’t been watered in 10 years”, I know you’re full of it. As a member of the industry, I can spot this lie. The funniest part is when a personality tells you this, and yet you can visibly see drip hose hanging over every vine on the ranch. One winery told us that they didn’t water their plants as their drip hose was running. Come on man.
Watering is ok. Being dry sounds fantastic in theory, and if we could, we would. But California is hot. There is a reason Guigal and Rostaing are in France. They much rather deal with a little mold on their wet crop than try to harvest a dusty, dried up one. On top of the drought, Paso vineyards are all stricken with Red Blotch, (a blog topic we will cover on another day). This disease keeps fruit from ripening, and all of these vineyards have had it since the boom of Paso Robles wine country. No one noticed it because we had rain that pushed the fruit to ripen. Now we can’t mask it naturally, so don’t tell me when you have a full canopy that you don’t water.
Sarah and I are mostly understanding with the tasting employees. Working out of Rabbit Ridge we know there are kinks in communication. We told tasters a wrong blend on a wine for six months until Erich corrected us. It’s ok to be wrong, but I’ve also spent enough time in the industry to see that not everyone is as forthcoming as we are. No doubt that there are winemakers and owners telling their pourers to say the things customers want to hear. It’s backhanded, but it happens. And unfortunately, not everyone who pours for you will even be informed on what is going on in the vineyard. Some of these employees may actually think that their vineyards have survived the drought without help, and that is sad. Beyond the common sense factor at play, one should have to have some understanding of the process to be behind the counter.
In reality it isn’t that big of a factor. There are many other aspects to selling wine. If it tastes like poo and is “dry farmed” I doubt you will have much success. Sarah and I are fortunate to work with a product that has amazing structure. If you ask, we tell you we water, and when the snobs give us a dirty look, we tell them the truth. After grape sampling the past few days, I’m happy we do water the little bit we do. Without some drippage, there would be no crop. The grapes are scarce, but it is what we have to work with this vintage. And all things are cyclical. The drought will fade, rains will return, and maybe we will be dry farmed. Until then, we will water, and I will spend my off days back at Bistro Laurent with a glass of Liquid Luck and a croque monsieur.