Iron Horse Blog
Greetings from thoroughly drenched Green Valley. We have received 22 inches of rain since January 1. Green Valley Creek which bisects the vineyard is a tributary of the Russian River and that whole swath of the estate is in a 100 year floodplain.
Photo: LG Sterling
For several days you couldn't see the tops of the posts on the bridge. We call that doing our part to replenish the aquifers.
Of course we need the rain. A year ago, 43 percent of the state was gripped by "exceptional drought". Now that figure is two percent. (Source: US Drought Monitor) And after 40 years here at Iron Horse we are seasoned at riding out a wet winter.
We are very lucky that our vineyards are hillside and our sandy soils drain easily. The rainbows have been inspiring. But we are going to have to hustle to get the pruning done before bud break.
Photo: LG Sterling
January is the traditional time to report on the state of the winery and I am proud to convey that the state of the winery is strong - a soggy mess after what has seemed like boundless rain from the start, but gamely moving forward.
There are some things about 2016 I would be very happy to repeat. Number #1, our many successes as a vineyard, winery, business and family. I am privileged to get to work with an exceptional team. And, last year, in some areas, we surprised ourselves.
I smile when I think about how smoothly we transitioned to tastings by appointment on the weekends. The response surpassed all expectations. We had the pleasure of welcoming 33,000 guests here last year and the San Francisco Chronicle named us one of the top 50 Tastings Rooms in Napa & Sonoma.
Now we ask that you please make reservations on weekdays too. It truly elevates the experience. Please look at the reservation program to see how easy it is.
Some of my fondest memories of 2016 involve toasting with "Cuvee 50" for Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, which now feels so far back in time, and "Spirit of 76" celebrating the 40th Anniversary of when my parents acquired Iron Horse in 1976.
Both were one time only, limited production bubblies, never to be replicated.
2016 was in no way an easy vintage. The crop was low and there was so much uneven ripening that in many blocks we picked just half the crop - strictly the mature fruit, and then went back two three days later to pick the rest once it too had fully ripened. The resulting wines have set a new bar for us and the year will always stand out as our 40th harvest at Iron Horse.
From the beginning the goal has been to strive for the highest quality, so it is especially gratifying to see Iron Horse in the current issue of Wine Enthusiast at the same table with the very best in the world.
Looking forward, the next release of Joy! is Friday March 17, St. Patrick's Day. It's bound to be a lucky day. This will be our third time hosting a Joy! Release Tasting. So far they have been very successful. There is no doubt that the first one, last March got the most excitement because we had been out of Joy! (Joy!less) for three years. Still, the November release did extremely well and received a near perfect 98 point rating. The November Joy! was 50% Pinot and 50% Chardonnay. I say "was" because as of last night we had 18 magnums left. The upcoming Joy! is the same vintage - 2003, but Blanc de Blancs and aged six months longer. Please make reservations here.
I am also very excited about how our Earth Day event is evolving.
The theme is the future of food.
The participating wineries are DeLoach Vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield Winery, Freeman Vineyard and Winery, Hartford Family Winery, Iron Horse Vineyards, Lynmar Estate, Marimar Estate, Rubin Family of Wines.
The keynote speaker is California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross.
Acclaimed San Francisco Chef Traci Des Jardins is on board to showcase the "Impossible Burger", made entirely from plants, served it at the Paris Climate Change Conference as tartare.
Ronstadt Generations will perform live, honoring the family's musical traditions with the Southwestern and Mexican songs of their heritage blended with original material. Special guest: Linda Ronstadt.
Imperfect Produce is providing a beautiful display of "ugly" produce as crudités.
We have enlisted Copia, a mobile app that helps businesses and events connect excess edible food to feed communities in need, instantly.
I hope you will be able to join in. Net proceeds will benefit Sustainable Conservation, a non-profit organization uniting people to solve California's toughest environmental challenges, chosen by Secretary Ross to be the beneficiary.
Finally, Gung Hay Fat Choy. Saturday is Chinese New Year. And naturally we are pouring our Year of the Rooster Cuvee in the Tasting Room.
Please come join us in a toast.
El Niño was a big help to our long term water woes, but not the savior many had hoped (read our blog’s past predictions for the Great Wet Hope here). Winter storms brought normal snowpack in the Sierra, but once the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, melt-off from the high country proved swift and disappointing.
The Department of Water Resources projects that the mountains produced about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt. This shorts the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water, cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State (news coverage here). Now the Governor has used his executive powers to enact permanent measures, acknowledging that water conservation has to become a way of life.
“Permanent” turns out to be through January 17 when the state Water Resources Control Board can revise the regulations. For the next five months we are off mandatory water use management and onto voluntary cutbacks.
Instead of a statewide decree, cities and towns are now allowed to manage their individual conservation efforts. This measure acknowledges the obvious - that water, like every resource, is not naturally equally distributed statewide.
Back in 2015, the Governor mandated a 25% reduction in water use compared with a baseline of 2013, with the 411 water districts reporting monthly (full story from the Sacramento Bee here).
Post-El Nino, California officials feel we can afford a break in certain parts of the state, especially in the North. It has now been determined that we can ease off draconian, one size fits all measures. Local communities are empowered to decide their own conservation needs based on a three year stress test. Monthly reporting remains honoring a motto of “Trust, but verify.”
Map of Official Monitoring Stations in the Delta region
In the first month on this “honor system,” the state averaged 23% reduction. July’s numbers will be released soon, concrete evidence of continued commitment to voluntary water frugality.
As an active observer of California Water Policy, I can’t imagine anyone thought El Nino would provide a panacea for drought. Complete recovery requires several more years of “average” rainfall but it definitely was a boon here in Sonoma where soils were saturated and reservoirs refilled.
Long term, the Governor is right to plan for perpetual drought, which experts says is a very real possibility. Some anticipate a time when water may become more valuable than land, positing that land without water won’t be worth much. Shocking.
Theories like these are motivating significant action on a large scale. In an extremely controversial move, Southern California’s powerful Metropolitan Water District recently purchased 20,000 acres, scattered across five agricultural islands in the North’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Shown above, the area is called the “Delta” because it forms a triangle of roughly 1,000 miles of waterways from Antioch to Sacramento to Stockton and is the hub of California’s water delivery network. Metropolitan says they were interested in purchasing the islands so they could restore natural wetlands habitat for plants and wildlife. Such restoration projects are required of water districts to offset the effects of their reservoirs, dams and canals. Two of the islands are in the path of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to build two tunnels underneath the Delta. And owning the islands also grants Metropolitan senior rights to pump water out of the Delta.
Critics say the purchase was an old fashioned water grab. It was challenged in court, but allowed to go through (coverage here and more here).
This story is not without a happy update: Stanford researchers have detected a potential new water source in the Central Valley. Perhaps as much as three times more groundwater than previous estimates.
Previous studies only looked at depths of up to 1,000ft (300m). This one went deeper - and investigations show there’s three times as much fresh water at 1,000–3,000ft (300–900m) below ground.
But the potential “windfall” comes with caveats. It is very deep thus prohibitively expensive to extract and could be salty. Drilling for it could lead to further land subsidence, already a major problem. And much of these hitherto unknown water sources happen to be close to oil and gas wells, which puts them at risk of being contaminated.
Shut-down desalinization plant in Marina, Cali image via NewsDeeply.com
The Central Valley is home to California’s most productive farm belt, but the region’s groundwater is so severely overdrafted that in some places that the land has been sinking two inches a month. Problems with subsidence started decades ago, but have been made worse by the current drought. With surface water so scarce, one study shows we are currently pumping water out of the ground at twice the rate that the aquifers can naturally recharge. At this rate, pulling more water out of the ground wouldn’t help.
The scientists are not advocating the use of this new-found source … at least not just yet. As the old saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
It'll take a while to figure out how to tap those very deep aquifers … and how to replenish them. In the meantime, we need to approach this new source with caution. Premature efforts could pollute the precious water AND inadvertently poke the “sleeping bear” - a term my friend and fellow water policy wonk Phil Grosse uses to describe the network of fault lines underlying the state. But this is California, where imagination and ingenuity are two of our greatest resources in overcoming technical difficulties and ultimately sway public policy.
In a press release on this topic, the Stanford scientists were cautiously optimistic despite the proximity of the groundwater to a potentially hazardous oil and gas operation. But they noted that the contamination risks are great enough that we should be paying attention. We might need to use this water in a decade, so it's definitely worth protecting. Find further reading on this important finding here and here.
I believe science will move us forward in the long run and I remain hopeful that technology will yield a sustainable solution. But for now, I’m relying on good old fashioned conservation. My wish list includes more normal rainfall, ideally from Thanksgiving through February and preferably at night, like Camelot.
Last day of harvest 2016 for Sparkling at Iron Horse. Photo: Laurence Sterling
The allure of buried treasure beguiles us as children. We trudge through our backyards guided by maps which point us to the spot marked X. Ah! The excitement of discovering something hidden.
This is an experience which eludes most of us as adults. That was, until our cellar master discovered a cache of long forgotten, unlabeled magnums of Sparkling Wine from various vintages going back 10-15 years. A treasure trove of beautifully aged bubbly - 30 cases of this, 40 cases of that, from seven vintages and 13 different base wines. The first vintage of Joy! was a 1991, which we released in spring of 2007.
Today, the Joy! project is in full bloom. The new release, vintage 2003, makes its debut Friday, March 18th (details about Release Day Joy! at the vineyard here). Shop it here.
To sip this wine is to experience the magic of 12 years aging in contact with the yeast before disgorging. As winemaker David Munksgard explains, it takes a full 12 years for the wine’s alcohol and acid to have the time to dissolve the goodness inside the yeast’s mitochondria (break out those biology textbooks!). Once released, those "goodies" (amino acids, proteins, and fatty acids) achieve two things, both hallmarks of truly beautiful bubbles. They contribute to the umami experience and the fatty acids coat the bubbles which making the perfect, pin point, tiny orbs that accumulate at the surface of the glass creating a “foam cap” or crown. The result is an especially creamy texture and nutty, brioche aromas.
I wish I could say that we planned Joy!, but I do feel it is to our credit that we hold onto these magnums for so long. As everyone in business knows, the most expensive thing you can do is hold onto inventory.
There is no doubt in my mind that longer aging is the key to creating the greatest California Sparklings, second only to vineyard site. The longer the time en tirage, the smaller the bubbles, leading to richer, creamier and more elegant wine. Top quality bubbly is so much about texture, which can only come from extended time on the lees. When you are drinking a tete de cuvee, like Joy!, you should not even have to swallow. It should just effervesce away in your mouth. (See our blog post on The Science behind the Magic, October 2015).
David says that he doesn’t know of any other California producers nor many French houses making this kind of time investment. (Maybe we should change the name of the wine to Patience?) That said, we urge you to be completely spontaneous in drinking Joy! We’ve already held onto to it long enough and David is always quick to remind us that even the most special wines are not made to be revered, but shared and enjoyed.
Here are his tasting notes:
"By nose, yeast and toasted hazelnut lead the way to grapefruit and baked apple scents with a hint of ginger. By mouth, your first impression is more sensual than taste. Full, rich and yet youthful and bright all at once. The most perfect lemon curd; creamy richness with freshness and bright finish. It is lush and refined like a silky ribbon."
How can you resist?
It has been four long, thirsty years since we have had any Joy! to share. That was the 1999 vintage, which won a near perfect 98 point score in Wine Enthusiast, 93 Points from Robert Parker and 93 points from Wine & Spirits.
The reviews were spectacular:
“Graceful and refined, with crisp apple and yeasty lemon aromas that lead to complex flavors of toasted almond, ginger and spicy mineral. Finishes with pinpoint crispness.”
“Light gold in the glass with aromas of wet stones, lemon, and roasted nuts, this wine tastes of bright apple, lemon, buttered toast, long finish. Wonderful acidity. One of the finest made in California”
“A deft blend of richness and delicacy, offering mature aromas of spiced apple, almond and cinnamon, with opulent flavors of toasty crème brûlée, laced with notes of mineral and ginger. Great length.”
We were greatly honored when it was served to the Queen of England at a State Dinner at the Ambassador's residence in London, Winfield House, in 2011.
Fortunately, the four year “drought” has been worth the wait! The current release is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. The disgorging date (day/month/year) is on the back of each bottle.
Spring forth and enjoy!
We were dreaming of a green Christmas this year and we got it. Thank you Santa! A near average amount of rain, bringing the hills back to life.
Even more importantly, we have snowpack to the Sierras.
The Sierra Nevada Snowpack currently stands at 105% of normal - the first time above average since 2012.
This is a remarkable milestone in a state where snow was virtually absent even at the highest elevations well into February last winter, and has been consistently far below average for four consecutive years. The early season storms in NorCal have been cold ones, creating a very healthy accumulation of snow across even in the middle elevation.
Think back to April 1 when Jerry Brown at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, walking across dry grass, announced the first ever mandatory water cutbacks of 25%. The Governors of California have trekked to that spot for 65 years and this was the first time there was no snow.
Snowpack contributes about 30 percent of California's water supply. This season’s first measurement was last Wednesday, December 30. The next will be April 1.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we recorded about seven inches of rain in December. The hills have greened-up. There’s water running down the creek.
We actually had flooding for two days, closing off the main entrance to the winery. All visitors, tasters, workers, the office, tasting room team, FedEx trucks had to go around the back way – a solid 30 minute detour, two days before Christmas. It was hard not to complain. We need the water. And it is amazing how many intrepid tasters there are.
The week leading up to New Year’s was old and dry with blue skies, puffy grey clouds and sometimes rainbows in our view.
We started pruning mid-month. We are pruning as if the drought will continue, deciding to err of the side of caution, though it means lowering our sights again in terms of crop sisze. The vineyard teams were given golf pencils with instructions that only shoots bigger than the pencil could be pruned down to two buds (meaning two shoots per position), anything smaller, would be pruned to one bud.
We are hoping for nice, steady, but not overwhelming rain in January. More specifically, we’d like for the storms to unfold with ideally a two-day lull between each one to allow the water to seep into the ground and not just rush off down the creek to the Ocean, please.
Wish for a good El Nino!
Always up for a celebration, I was very excited to learn that October 1st is the official start of the New Water Year in California. This should be greeted with popping corks and renewed optimism. First because we made it through Water Year 2015 … and second because we might just luck out with El Niño, now being ballyhooed as our “great wet hope.” As I follow local coverage of rising El Niño fever (here) I encourage you to read along with me and ultimately draft your own personal New Water Year Resolution #MyNewWaterYearResolution
As a friend and neighbor says, “Here we are, enjoying Indian summer and praying for a rip-roaring El Niño to clobber us this winter. How California, to hope for a disaster to end a catastrophe!”
Photo via @Claudio Chea
Water Year 2015 has been noteworthy for several reasons:
Far less precipitation than normal in California
Temperatures far warmer than normal
A strengthening El Niño in the equatorial Pacific that some scientists believe is now “too big to fail.” Find the scientific facts in last week’s LA Times coverage here.
In a revised forecast released last Thursday, the National Weather Service said Northern California stands a decent chance of getting significant precipitation this winter. WeatherWest.com data points to this conclusion as well. In fact, they explain that the present track is comparable in magnitude to both the 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 events which were the strongest in the long-term record.
While forecasters have been saying this winter will likely bring heavy rains to Southern California, which is typical for El Niño, they’ve been less certain about the outlook for the northern half of the state. This is insight we desperately need. The state’s major reservoirs are in the north, making rain and snow in that region of utmost importance to significantly bolster the state’s water supplies.
The bulk of the precipitation is predicted to fall in December but mainly during the traditional rainy season from January - March. Luckily, Winter Is Coming.
William Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is the most optimistic and outspoken about the northern rain exposure. He’s convinced El Niño will be felt in Northern California. “At this point – at this particular time – this is too large to fail,” he said.
If history is a guide, California will see big snow in the northern mountains along with rain in the south, Patzert said. “The last two El Niños that were of this magnitude hosed all of California,” he said. “If you look at the snowpack for those two El Niños, you had double the snowpack, too.”
What’s changed since the weather service’s previous forecasts? Temperature anomalies in the Pacific are increasingly favorable to Northern California’s rain outlook and according to Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, the so-called “ridiculously resilient ridge,” the high-pressure system that has kept rain and snow from falling on California, is finally breaking down.
Also check out this extremely cool NOAA video animation showing their weekly temperature readings of El Nino.
But Mount and Jay Lund, an engineer and watershed specialist at UC Davis, want to manage expectations. The experts point to the relative rarity of strong El Niños – just six since 1957. Their main point? We could still be left disappointed.
“We have a small sample size,” Lund said. “There’s still a substantial probability that we’re going to continue to be in a drought next year.”
So this is no time to become over confident. We must remain committed to conservation.
Here in Sonoma County, I am very proud to say the vintners have stepped up with voluntary measures to save water and help protect the Coho salmon. The Press Democrat quoted state regulators who showered Sonoma County landowners with praise. Read about the creative efforts and resulting hope for the future here.
Statewide, we Californians continue meeting the Governor’s water conservation mandate. We reduced water use by nearly 27 percent during August, exceeding Jerry Brown’s 25 percent conservation mandate for a third straight month.
Now we need everybody to make a New Water Year Resolution! My suggestion is that you resolve to capture and store as much rain possible. Whether it be in a reservoir, cistern or water barrels sold at the hardware store. Tip - old wine barrels actually work very well for this purpose. Share your resolutions with our us in the comments or on social media with the #MyNewWaterYearResolution
Hopefully, we will look back on Water Year 2015 as the final year of one of the state’s most severe dry periods on record. And may 2016 be the year we “win” the drought (see NY Times’ “How California Is Winning the Drought” here).
Many cultures mark the New Year on different dates and with special rituals. There’s Chinese New Year in January-February and Jewish New Year in September. The Ancient Egyptians timed their New Year to the flooding of the Nile in July. So, in some ways, October 1st can be seen as California’s New Year … appropriate as we tend to be a culture apart on most things.
And how to celebrate California New Year? With California bubbly, of course.
Cheers! Happy #winewednesday & Happy New Water Year!
This year’s harvest offered a bunch of “firsts” for the Iron Horse team and provided challenges for expert wine growers like the Sterling Family and winemaker David Munksgard. Each harvest offers its own hurdles and opportunities to recommit to a vineyard philosophy of garnering exceptional flavors. But as the 2015 harvest comes to a close, it’s apparent that this year was uniquely challenging for several reasons.
To learn more about the unprecedented growing conditions and harvesting game plan that define the vintage, I snagged some precious time with David, the 35 year “veteran of the vines” who teamed with Laurence Sterling to employ methods that traditionally are only seen in the finest wine chateaus in France.
Tarin: Where are we with harvest? Close to wrapping up?
David: We will finish this week.
Tarin: Is it appropriate to say that this year’s harvest calendar was anything but expected?
David: Yes, it was completely mixed up. The normal progression would be to start by picking Pinot Noir for Sparkling, followed by Chardonnay for Sparkling. Then we’d move to Chardonnay grapes for still wines and finish with Pinot Noir for still. This year, we started with Pinot Noir for Sparkling but then jumping all over the place from there. We’re actually wrapping up with sparkling. In my 35 year career, I have never seen a harvest like this. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It simply means that it’s challenging. You really needed to be IN the vineyard to observe and judge the ripening vine by vine, day by day, so that you could improvise a game plan to take advantage of a constantly changing situation.
Tarin: Explain some of the hurdles you experienced upon starting the harvest.
David: Compared to the previous three bountiful years, this crop was sadly very light. Additionally when we assessed the grape vines, rather than finding uniformity, we found Pinot Noir vines where half the grapes were green and half were purple. Knowing that it was going to be a smaller harvest, we had to work with this diversity and not just cut those green grapes and let them drop to the ground. Essentially, we had to pick each vine twice. Laurence and I were clear with the vineyard team about which shades of purple were ripe for picking. It was the only way we could protect our ability to make the highest quality wine.
Tarin: How do you describe the vintage?
David: Challenging! But it is so satisfying to work with people who can all agree on the solution even when it is the more difficult path. Sure, we could have waited until the average analysis of the vineyard was what we needed, but the truth is that we would never have been able to make an amazing product by picking under-ripe or overripe fruit and let it even out in the press. We simply can’t do things like that with our commitment to excellence. We have to protect the reputation of the winery and if that means working twice as hard and incurring the cost, then we will. In the end, we devised a way to make really great wines in a difficult vintage.
Tarin: How does this harvest compare with last year?
David: Last year, harvest was delivered to us with a ribbon. But I think the wines are going to be on par with the last couple of excellent vintages.
Tarin: We’re hearing that quantity is down … but quality is high?
David: Quality is not high because the crop is small - the quality is simply there thanks to what Iron Horse does in the vineyards.
Currently we have only six wines available to taste. The rest are still fermenting. But they are clearly equal to the past few great vintages. Honestly, this was kind of shocking. Based on what we had to go through, I was expecting the results wouldn’t be so great. I am extremely happy to be surprised.
Tarin: Weather was clearly a driving factor, describe the weather starting with that nice rain in December 2014…. then what?
David: Nice and promising ... then extreme, protracted drought. Luckily we have a reservoir on the property, which the Sterlings had the foresight to build in the 70s. We use recycled water which Laurence and the vineyard crew carefully allocated to keep the vines in really great shape. We never got to a place where I was nervous about the vines holding up until the grapes were mature.
We didn’t have as much fog as we normally have. There was a time where the harvest was faster than normal - the sugars were rising quickly, but then we dropped into moderate weather with cool nights. For the most part, the weather was cooperative with cooler conditions that envelope the grapes through the night until mid morning and allowed the crew to pick until 10-11am.
However at the very end, we had a few days of 100+ heat. By then, the few remaining blocks could be completely picked before the day got too hot. We only had one very small block that suffered a slight bit from the high temperatures. It was our last block of Pinot Noir for still wine, our harvest crew culled out clusters that had raisined.
Tarin: What has the long growing season meant?
David: When we started bud break, it was ridiculously early - two weeks ahead of last year, which was three weeks ahead of 2013. Then we went into a period of cool almost cold weather and that stopped the clock. The vine is only active when the average daytime temps are above 60 degrees, if it doesn’t meet that, the vine goes into a dormant, slumber state. So essentially, the early spring didn’t count. In the absence of a consistent rise in temperatures, we got the cluster to cluster variation which was so challenging. All the historically important and reliable timelines got stopped and re-started repeatedly. That interruption of the normal cycle in the vineyard led to uneven ripening and us picking the same vines repeatedly.
Tarin: What are your great take aways from this harvest?
David: I’ve always heard that the great vineyards in France make exceptional wines even in a difficult vintage, while lesser chateaus often miss the mark under distress. What it boils down to is the commitment on the part of those great wineries. Iron Horse has that passion and dedication. As Laurence says, “It has to MEAN something when we put ‘Estate Grown.’” on our labels.
Tarin: Now, tell us about your new drone! We LOVE this video shot recently. How are you using the drone in the vineyard?
David: I initially used a small drone with a 1-2 megapixel camera to take some vineyard photos. At the time, I of course knew the property was beautiful but I didn’t know it was that beautiful! I ultimately upgraded to a big drone with a large high def camera and I’ve been blown away at the view from 400 feet.
From a practice perspective, the benefits are untapped. Years ago, we would do an annual flight over the vineyard for infrared insights into the foliage conditions in different sections. With the drone, we can do this much more frequently and at lower cost.
Tarin: How has it helped with the harvest?
David: I got this drone a couple weeks into harvest, but next year I plan on getting it up there weeks before we start picking to look around with a hawk’s perspective. These flights will serve to help us identify which vines need more emitters (more water). It also has the potential to pinpoint differences in the canopy. Once something out of the ordinary catches your eye, you can walk out to that spot and see what’s going on. I’m sure this drone can be used to make a better bottle of wine.
Tarin: When will we be able to taste the wines of 2015?
David: The Sterling family tradition has been to get together around Thanksgiving to taste the new vintage. Generally, November-December is when you get your first good sense of quality ie depth of character and complexity of flavors.
And as winemaker I taste the wines continuously as they develop.
As a finished product, the Chardonnays will be released in two years, the Pinot Noir in three and most of the bubbles in 2019.
With the start of summer, the drought has been hitting closer and closer to home … and then, suddenly, it is home.
Wells are starting to go dry in nearby Forestville. Up until now, I have felt relatively secure that the North Bay (Marin, Sonoma, Napa) is experiencing nothing more than a “severe drought.” This classification is a level five on the seven levels of severity. Therefore, in a small way I have considered our vineyard as more fortunate when compared with other parts of the state, like Fresno, which is suffering “extraordinary drought.”
Since I last blogged on this topic, the State Water Resouces Control Board approved an emergency regulation aimed at protecting the threatened Coho Salmon and Steelhead. Ordinances affect about 13,000 properties in the watersheds of Dutch Bill Creek, Green Valley Creek, which bisects Iron Horse, Mark West Creek and Mill Creek. Water users in these watersheds, i.e. us, will be subject to: 1) enhanced conservation measures built on existing statewide water restrictions 2) regular submission of reports detailing surface and groundwater use. (Note: Below is a photo of our creek from May 2013. It shows water … today it is just muddy.)
The center of this issue goes beyond the mandatory reporting of diversions, focusing on the very definition of a diversion. According to a draft of the emergency regulation:
“Diversions” means all water diverted or pumped from surface waters or from subsurface waters that are hydraulically connected to the surface stream within the watersheds.
All subsurface water is considered hydraulically connected to the surface stream if pumping that water may contribute to a reduction in stream stage or flow of any surface stream within the watersheds.
For the first time ever we will monitor and report on our groundwater use, filing what we have diverted with the State Water Boards.
Really this just means more paperwork. Historically, we only divert water from the creek when the water level is high enough for the health of the fish. Our Iron Horse family has been working with Fish & Wildlife officials since last November to remove any barriers preventing fish from commuting up and down stream. To support our joint efforts, we have significantly reduced our diversions. In 2013 we pumped 8 acre/feet, in 2014 just 2.75, and in 2015, none … so as not to endanger the hatchlings seeded by Fish & Wildlife. We love the salmon and do everything we can to help them navigate Green Valley Creek.
This makes us more reliant on the fruits of our conservation efforts including recycled water and winery grey water which goes to the reservoir for the vineyards, gardens and landscaping. This reservoir is just about full - re-charged by advanced treated water from Forestville. We are installing meters on our wells and our houses. We are mowing more frequently in the vineyards to preserve the cover crop and keep it from competing with the vines. We pruned and have been thinning shoots to reduce water needs of the vines. (Below - a picture of the vegetable garden, irrigated with advanced treated water.)
Good news is that at least in May, we celebrated residential water use wins as shared in the Los Angeles Times. Urban areas reported a 29% drop in usage which is the biggest monthly decline yet since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory cuts. But officials caution that these efforts will have to ramp up as the warmer months become more exaggerated, we need six consistent months of similar water use declines to see serious impact.
As experts admit, overall water usage this summer is anyone's guess and is largely dependent on the heat. Every drop counts - a philosophy that has been embraced by everyone at Iron Horse. In fact, my brother is growing a “drought beard” to proactively “repurpose” water normally used while shaving.
As for our beloved California salmon …
We spend a good part of the year waiting for summer, which heralds the return of wild king salmon, considered by many to be Sonoma’s “National Dish”.
State and federal wildlife agencies have been transporting the new generation of baby fish via tanker truck to San Francisco Bay. Due to the drought, rivers and streams have become too shallow or too warm for salmon to navigate and survive the journey to the Pacific.
The salmon transport has been in progress since February, with 35,000 gallon tanker trucks being used to transport salmon along the 90 minute journey from hatcheries to the ocean via the freeway to bypass dried-up riverbeds.
In the next few years, we will start to see the effect of the drought on fish in the ocean. Warmer water makes the fish harder to catch because they’re not concentrated in their normal areas. And we don’t yet know how many fish have reproduced in the rivers and creeks … and how many will make it back.
The Salmon’s Life Cycle:
The fish swim up the river and spawn, those baby salmon grow into smolts and work their way down to the ocean within a year or two. They spend five or six years in the ocean, and then they go back up the river they were born in to spawn again and die. If there’s no water, they can’t swim downstream to the ocean or back upstream to reproduce. We’re affected by the water conditions from five or six years ago. So we’ll see the effects of the drought in the next few years.
California wild and natural King Salmon is considered by many to be the finest member of the salmon family and extremely nutritious. “Fast” food facts:
less than 200 calories per 3-ounce portion
excellent source of quality protein (21 grams, 47% of the Recommended Daily Intake)
low in saturated fat and sodium
rich in vitamins and minerals
ocean-run California King salmon is also very rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Salmon can be grilled, baked, broiled, poached, microwaved, sautéed, smoked, canned, or eaten raw in sushi and as sashimi. It can be prepared with any of your favorite seasonings or marinades: simple or exotic, homemade or store-bought. Don’t think of it as only an entree; it can also be featured in chowders and soups, pastas, appetizers, salads and sandwiches. And most importantly, it pairs beautifully with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and bubbly!
Iron Horse Favorite Recipe: Whole Roasted Salmon in a Crust of Sea Salt
1-8Lb. Salmon, gutted, scaled and trimmed
salt and pepper
1 bunch fresh thyme
several fresh bay leaves
6 Lb. sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
zest of 4 lemons, finely chopped
Serves: 8 people
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Wash fish thoroughly, inside and out, and pat dry. Season the cavity of the fish with salt and pepper, the thyme and bay leaves.
Spread half the sea salt on the bottom of a large baking dish or half sheet tray. Place the fish and completely cover it from head to tail with the remaining salt. Put in the oven and bake 10 minutes per pound.
Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Brush away as much salt as possible from the fish. Then, using a sharp knife, gently remove and discard skin. With a thin spatula, remove the filets from along the backbone, place on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil and lemon zest.
Serve with Iron Horse 2013 Chardonnay, 2012 Pinot Noir and/or 2011 Summer’s Cuvee
“You never miss the water till the well has run dry.” Irish Proverb
1,900 wells have gone dry in California as we dive further into a four year drought. That’s about 1% of the state’s wells, with the greatest concentration in the Fresno area. Groundwater levels continue dropping, in some places as much as 10 feet. For the first time in nearly a century, farmers who normally receive canal water from the Fresno Irrigation District will get no regular deliveries. As one Fresno Irrigation District farmer conceded in the Fresno Bee, “You can’t release water you don’t have.”
Essentially - water will be flowing in the canals but will NOT be available for on-farm use. A shocking image. Law abiding farmers wishing to avoid fines will have to turn on their pump and pray for sufficient groundwater to make it through the season.
The water that is available has been repurposed - tasked with recharging underground aquifers and directed to surface water treatment plants.
As a member of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, appointed by the Governor, I attended a public forum on the drought last week in Fresno.
The event’s big takeaway: mandatory restrictions will become a way of life.
(pictured above - Marin Hills turning gold prematurely - a phenomenon we usually see in August)
Here’s a snapshot of information shared by government officials:
California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency Secretary Anna Caballero estimated 4,000 residents don’t have access to water because wells have run dry. She said, "It's obviously a health crisis and we want to make sure we're doing everything we can to provide resources to be able to avoid that." (Source)
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, provided updates on the government’s drought relief and conservation plans, water efficiency programs and increased funding for research and development of new technology. (Source)
Ghilarducci hinted that further cuts may become necessary if it doesn’t look like people are saving enough to meet the state’s targets. Governor Jerry Brown’s April executive order requires an across-the-board 25 percent reduction in the state’s water use by February 2016. (Source)
I had expected fights to break out at the meeting. My first hope was that everyone would be asked to park their guns at the door. Instead, we heard mainly sad stories:
One rural homeowner spoke of groundwater concerns, saying:
"The water table dropped two feet a year for 70 years and right now it's dropping at eight feet a year." He dug a new well that goes down 400 feet and figures he is OK for the time being. But realizes many others won’t be.
There was a shared and vocal concern about the blame being heaped on agriculture.
An almond grower called the criticism “hyperbolic attacks.”
CDFA Board President Craig McNamara, a walnut grower, posted on the CDFA’s “Planting Seeds” blog:
“Those holding that point of view may believe that farmers and ranchers consume more than their fair share of water. While it’s easy to cast blame, let’s not forget that irrigation wells have gone dry, lifelong investments are dying in the fields and serious financial burdens are hanging overhead.”
Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross wrote an OpEd piece in the Modesto Bee asking: What happens to Ag water? Eventually people eat and drink it. (Source) The piece opens up with this statement:
“A recent survey by the Farm Water Coalition indicated that 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland will lose 80 percent of its surface water in 2015 due to cutbacks because of the drought. Add that to a reduction of more than 30 percent last year and it’s obvious that farmers and ranchers have suffered the brunt of drought-related losses, so far.”
As the crisis continues to evolve, expand and worsen in dangerous new ways, all Californians need to become involved in the drought conversation. Acreage, livelihoods, health, and the environment are being threatened.
Our next Board meeting is Tuesday June 2 at CDFA headquarters in Sacramento, beginning at 10am with participation from New York Times Columnist Mark Bittman as well as representatives from Mother Jones, Grist and Gizmodo. As always, it is open to the public for comment.
A horrifying headline.
And a must read. I actually found the Op Ed in last Sunday’s NY Times to be very balanced…. its concluding paragraph espousing everything I believe.
“The drought may indeed be a long overdue bill for creating an oasis civilization. But therein lies a solution. The Golden State is an invention, with lives to match. If the drought continues, California will be forced to rely even more on what has long sustained it — imagination. Not a bad thing to have too much of.”
Imagination and innovation -- these are the precious resources which have historically made California rich and famous. I wholeheartedly believe they are the attributes which will ultimately resolve the drought crisis.
Just last month, California launched a push to stimulate aggressive drought fighting innovation. A spokesman for the California Energy Commission says the program will begin this summer.
In a demonstration of the fact that necessity is truly the mother of invention, innovators are working on disruptive technologies to optimize Mother Earth’s gifts.
1) water conveyance systems
3) on-site water reuse
4) high tech approaches to more efficient water use in agriculture.
The governor unveiled the latest version of his proposal to build two underground tunnels at 40 feet wide and 35 miles long in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
A French engineering and construction firm has proposed a flexible undersea pipeline.
Pro: This would carry water from two NorCal rivers to cities down the coast, addressing dire need
Con: Sky-high construction costs tabled this project in 1975 when originally considered
Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is sparking a renewable power revolution by translating their famed car technology for the residential/commercial market. He’s seeking to slash the current water demands for power generation with battery packs linked to a solar power system.
Pro: Musk asserts that his water saving batteries will play an important role in ending fossil fuel dependence and global warming trends. Tesla stationary energy storage systems are already in beta testing in residential/commercial/winery environments
Con: Like the car, this Tesla technology is not cheap and infrastructural changes required to make the technology go mainstream are daunting
A few more exciting prospects I’m keeping my eye on....
1) USA: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have developed a new capacitive desalination technique. The project could ultimately lower the cost & time of desalinating seawater.
2) AUSTRALIA: The country has constructed eight “desal” plants during their (perish the thought) 15 year drought.
3) ISRAEL: Scientists are currently running the world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant.
While scanning the globe for solutions and finding inspiration in the indomitable spirit of fellow Californians, my family and I leverage the natural gifts in our own backyard as we wait for necessity to provide. At our Iron Horse Vineyards, we use advanced treated water from the town of Forestville and recycled water from the winery to charge our reservoir for frost protection and irrigation.
An unlikely hero is emerging in this arena -- earthworms. The efforts of the tiny organisms provide an organic solution to treating thousands of gallons of wastewater each day from wineries. Even the smallest among us will deserve praise when the history of our crisis is written.
What part will you play?
Last week’s Holy Water blog installment triggered community conversation on important related reading. I hope this week’s installment spurs conversation about the place of technology in this battle. I will continue to keep you updated as California drought coverage and state action plans develop. Let’s keep this urgently needed conversation alive #EndofCalifornia
Holy Water is an essay written by Joan Didion in 1979. In a sentence, it’s about being obsessed with water. A feeling we know too well these days. Joan Didion for me is a quintessential California writer like Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Mark Twain – the sole woman in the pantheon.
Mainly, look at how cool she is:
And NOW, as a model for the Céline ads in all the fashion magazines - Vogue, Elle, W, Harpers Bazaar
Her essay Holy Water is a great read … or re-read in this time of extreme drought. I highly, highly recommend it. If you have a moment, tweet me what you think using @IronHorseVyds, @joybubbles and #HolyWater.
As a member of the Food and Agriculture Board, I get a daily compilation of 20 or more links to every news story, fact sheet, white paper and blog being written about water, drought, fish, almonds, desalination, cemetery water use, etc. So far, my favorite is an interactive map that shows water use by water district. It’s interesting to see the variation across the state. Click here for the map from The New York Times.
Among friends, casual dinner table conversation frequently turns to personal water saving tips. One friend, who lives in Belvedere, says she lines up buckets in the shower to catch what you would normally let go down the drain until the water gets warm. Another, says his wife got him to put tall plastic trash cans all over their lawn to capture and store rainfall. He now refers to this installation as yard art. “My wife might let the lawn go, but never the roses”, he says.
These tips bring to mind another must-read: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster, in case you are considering building a cistern.
“Not many people I know carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries,” wrote Didion in 1979. In 2015, just about everyone I know can hold their own on that topic! We are acutely aware how water deliveries directly affect our personal lives. Back then, swimming pools were easy targets as symbols of excessive water use. The war cry in the North was “we don’t want our water going to fill the swimming pools of Beverly Hills."
Today’s villains are the almond growers. Everyone is shocked to learn that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond … and that 90% of California almonds get exported. But it is too facile to point fingers. Here is an excellent article from The Guardian that provides a balanced view. It presents the argument of an almond grower through exploring a case study. The piece tracks a family-owned almond farm which began investing in water efficiency decades before it was "cool." Sounds like a beautiful vineyard in Green Valley I know....
I am optimistic.
For one thing, the board I sit on is very active in advising the Governor. A positive sign that our leadership is open to diverse and expert inputs. Number two, the state is facing the issue head on… as is every local agency. Every asset, every resource is being thrown into the fight. Everyone in a position to make a difference is working very hard and they are all very, very smart.
As the Governor said at our Celebrate Earth Day in Green Valley event, “Don’t worry about the drought. Just don’t use too much water.”
I will continue to keep you updated as California drought coverage and state action plans develop. Let’s keep this urgently needed conversation alive #HolyWater