New Tool in Vineyard Water Conservation

Water conservation is at the forefront of our effort to farm in an environmentally sensitive manner. Last week, thanks to a generous gift from Fish Friendly Farming, we added another important tool to our water efficiency arsenal: a soil moisture sensor.


Fish Friendly Farming obtained a grant to make soil moisture sensors available to farmers in the Russian River and Navarro River watersheds. The sensors allow farmers to actually see below the soil surface to determine the water content of the soil. It thus provides additional data which is useful in determining when an irrigation is required and whether the amount of irrigation provided is the right amount. We applied for and were grateful to receive a soil sensor, which was installed by Melina and Cody.


We’ve traditionally used several technologies to insure that we give our vines the water they need when they need it and no more.

Drip irrigation: Our drip irrigation system and dual drip lines allow us to precisely meter water to plants that need it, while minimizing evaporative loss.

Leaf water potential: Using a “pressure bomb” (unfortunate name) allows us to determine the water status of individual plants. We use this data primarily to determine when to begin irrigation—we wait until the plants reach a predetermined level of water stress (i.e., we wait until they are thirsty) before starting irrigation. Secondarily, we use the data to monitor the effect of irrigations we make during the growing season.

California irrigation management information system (CIMIS) data: The CIMIS system is a network of climate sensors developed by the State of California and the University of California, Davis that allows farmers throughout the state to calculate how much water is lost by plants on a daily basis to evaporation and transpiration. Transpiration is the process where plants absorb water through their root system and respire it to the atmosphere through their leaves. The CIMIS data allows us to determine how much water we need to provide the vines to replace what they’ve lost.

Visual observation: You can also tell a lot about vine water status just by looking, if you know what to look for. These signs include shortened and sagging shoot tip tendrils, leaves turned away from the sun, leaf petioles sagging, and leaves in the fruiting zone starting to yellow.

One of the things that really encouraged me about working with Fish Friendly Farming is that it was an example of a member of the environmental community working with farmers in a constructive way to achieve a common goal: resource conservation. 

Ask clay gantz, co-owner/grower

Why aren't more grapes "dry farmed" (grown without irrigation)? 

After all, they dry farm in Europe, right? It is possible to dry farm grapes in some vineyards in California. However, in most it is not. The reason why they can in Europe, but not universally in California is simple: While in Northern California we actually get a little more annual rainfall (31.5 inches) than in Burgundy (30.5 inches), in Europe it consistently and regularly rains (about 2 inches a month) during the summer growing season. In Northern California, we get virtually no rain from May to October. The rain we get in the winter recharges our groundwater basins and is stored and used in summer when needed. This is why agricultural and other open space uses are so important—water that falls on a urban area is diverted from the groundwater basins and runs to the sea through storm drains.

Click below to learn more: 

Delicate Work with New Clone

The newly grafted clone 23 "Mariafeld" is on the right.

The newly grafted clone 23 "Mariafeld" is on the right.

In April, we replaced a 1-acre block of underperforming Calera with clone 23 "Mariafeld," a Pinot Noir clone that we hope resists the shatter that caused the Calera to be a pain in our behinds.

The new buds on the Mariafeld are breaking nicely. But the root stock -- which the Mariafeld clone is grafted to to create a phylloxera-resistant base -- is putting out a lot of suckers. These suckers steal energy necessary for the survival of the little buds, so it’s our job to remove them.

All the rootstock suckers.

All the rootstock suckers.

The only way to remove them is by hand. Very, very carefully. The buds are very fragile and removing the suckers with a rough hand could easily brush the Mariafeld bud off. That means a new graft and waiting another year for the new clone to come into production.

So, Clay and I spent three days in the vineyard, carefully removing the suckers from 1,862 plants. To save our backs from all the stooping, we wear a back brace and I have a small stool to sit on at each plant. It's not fun work, especially as the days warmed each afternoon. But it is fun to think of the potential of the Mariafeld when it matures in 2017.

Pre- and post-suckering

Pre- and post-suckering

Introducing New Pinot Noir Clone to Vineyard

I’ve long felt that farming is a continual voyage of understanding and self-improvement. What one learns in school or from the received wisdom of esteemed elders or famous vineyardists or winemakers is valuable, but it is not always relevant to what you will experience on your site. Part of being a farmer is to learn and draw your own conclusions from your own experience. After all, you know your site better than anyone else.

To that end, I’ve come to grips with the fact that one of our early decisions to plant the Calera clone of Pinot Noir might have been the wrong one. While we like the quality of the wine made from our Calera blocks (it has found its way into Kosta Browne’s Russian River Valley blend from the first 2013 harvest), the clone is highly prone to shatter because of the grapes' failure to properly self-pollinate. Yields have been ridiculously low--while our Pommard blocks reliably produce three tons per acre, the best we’ve managed in our Calera blocks is one ton per acre.

So, last year we began to consider changing some portion of our Calera blocks to another clone, which will hopefully perform better on our site. The process was fun and informative.

We began with conceptual discussions with our team, including Jim Pratt, Kris Lowe and our winery partner, Kosta Browne. Each contributed different thoughts and opinions and answers to the question, “Should we change and, if so, to what?” Based on these conversations, we decided that if we were going to make a change, we should consider one of three clones: clone 2A “Wadenswil,” from Switzerland, clone 23, “Mariafeld,” also from Switzerland, and clone 37, “Mount Eden,” a California heritage clone selected from the historic Mount Eden Winery. Then, we retired to the Kosta Browne Winery, where they generously walked us through a tasting of many (more than 10, I think) wines in process, each made from one or another of these clones. Based on this tasting, Celeste and I had a decided preference for clone 23, which had a distinctive rich flavor that we could consistently identify.  Coincidentally, it is a also favorite of Kosta Browne.

The next step was to consider how much of our vineyard to switch. Our goal has always been to create a vineyard worthy of a “vineyard designate” wine (i.e., a bottling that consisted solely of our grapes). To achieve this, our grapes must be of the highest quality, but also combine to create a distinctive wine of unique character and interest. In that sense, each clone is like the players in a great band—unique and distinguishable, but harmonious and creating a whole bigger than the sum of the parts. Mariafeld definitely will add to the mix, but too much might overwhelm the Pommard, which we love.

In the end, we decided to graft one block (Naomi’s block, approximately one acre) to Mariafeld. We’ll keep blocks 4 and 5 to Calera for the time being. Jim Pratt and his team are not as frustrated with it as Kris and I, and he has some ideas to improve production in those blocks.

I sourced the budwood from UC Davis over the winter. The grafting was accomplished on April 9, and already I am seeing the newly grafted buds beginning to push. We’ll have our first crop of Mariafeld next year, and we will let you know how things go!

Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

Keeping Track of Your Gopher Traps

One issue that we have is that while our gopher traps, called The Gophinator, are quite hardy, they do disappear as predators drag them away with the dead gophers. Attaching a length of cable to our traps and connecting them to the ground with a flag or stake allow us to identify where they are and keep the predators from taking off with them.

Give to Help Sonoma County Wetland: the Laguna de Santa Rosa

Give to Help Sonoma County Wetland: the Laguna de Santa Rosa

One of our favorite walks is the Santa Rosa Creek trail in the Laguna de Santa Rosa. It is a spectacular trail that allows bikers, walkers and dog owners a peek of the characteristics that make Sonoma County a wonderful place to live: vineyards, horse and cattle pastures, corn fields and ponds full of ducks and geese.

Successful Inventions Speed Up Olive Harvest

Successful Inventions Speed Up Olive Harvest

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, we were in desperate need to find a better way to harvest our seven olive trees in time for Trattore Farms' Community Milling Day last Sunday. For the past years of olive harvest, we've shaken the limbs or stripped the olives by hand, and then chased the ones that rolled or bounced off the tarp we'd laid down to collect them. There had to be a better way.