Smoke from the Walbridge Fire near Santa Rosa looms over a vineyard in August 2020. (Photo/GibsonOutdoorPhoto)
Smoke from the Walbridge Fire near Santa Rosa looms over a vineyard in August 2020. (Photo/GibsonOutdoorPhoto)

Jewish winemakers press forward on a warming planet

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Jeff Morgan was thinking about the cabernet sauvignon grapes he bought this fall in Pope Valley, near Napa.

“I’ve been sourcing grapes from this particular vineyard for I’d say almost 20 years,” said Morgan, co-founder of Covenant Wines. “And I’ve never had an issue with water before. We’ve always had enough water to get through the growing season.”

Not this year, though. Usually the grapes can be harvested through late October, but in mid-September the vineyard owner told Morgan the grapes needed to be picked. Now.

“They were probably going to run out of water because all the reservoirs were going dry, and that’s their main source,” he said. “That was a shock to my system.”

It’s been shock after shock for the past few years in the wine industry. California and the West have been wracked by fires, while rising temperatures and a vanishing snowpack have drastically reduced the water available. The reason? Climate change.

“We see it,” said Oded Shakked of Healdsburg-based Longboard Vineyards, whose path eventually took him from Herzliya to the wine studies program at UC Davis. “Harvests are getting sooner. It’s definitely warming up.”

Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards in Healdsburg says it’s become harder to obtain fire and risk insurance.
Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards in Healdsburg says it’s become harder to obtain fire and risk insurance.

That means things are getting tougher for those in the industry, including the small and dedicated group of Jewish winemakers who have made Northern California their home.

“Certainly, in California, we’re all very much aware that we’ve been in a drought situation for a number of years — serious drought situation,” said Morgan, whose kosher winery operates out of a space in Berkeley. “And then of course, anybody who lives on the West Coast has not been able to avoid the specter of forest fires.”

But optimism, resiliency and a willingness to deal with the ups and downs of farming are keeping Northern California’s Jewish winemakers in the game, even as it gets harder to play.

“It takes a lot to chase [us] out of town,” said Len Lehmann, the entrepreneur and philanthropist turned winemaker who owns Portola Vineyards in the South Bay. “But everyone sees it’s increasingly difficult to do business.”

According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state gets 75 percent of its water from rain and snow from the watersheds north of Sacramento. It flows through a system of reservoirs, dams and aqueducts to irrigate the fields and orchards that have made California a powerhouse of agriculture and put Napa, especially, on the map as a major player in the international wine industry.

In recent years, though, the abundance of water has dried up. California was basically in a nonstop drought from 2011 to 2019, and large swaths of the northern part of the state are currently in the highest level of drought, despite the recent rains. Called D4, it’s a category for “exceptional” drought, but the exceptional is becoming normal; the state looks at water levels from one October to the next, and the last “water year” was the driest in a century. On Oct. 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the existing drought emergency to include the whole state, and made a further plea for conservation.

Vineyards have workarounds for insufficient water, such as shaping the plants to provide shade, or replacing sprinklers with drip irrigation — which was invented in Israel in the 1960s and has been widely adopted in California. Israel, where there’s even been an effort to grow wine grapes in the arid Negev Desert, has always been at the forefront of using every drop of water to best advantage, Morgan said, like repurposing wastewater for irrigation.

“Their effective use of grey water is something that we should aspire to in California,” he said.

Jeff Morgan of Berkeley-based Covenant Wines got word of an early harvest in September.
Jeff Morgan of Berkeley-based Covenant Wines got word of an early harvest in September.

There’s also dry farming, which Lehmann practices. He doesn’t usually need water for his vines, relying instead on rain and what the vines can source from the soil.

“Typically we don’t irrigate at all and let the vines find their own water,” he said.

But this year he had to turn to drip irrigation five times. “They couldn’t find water,” he said.

It’s not so much that all drought spells doom for farmers. A year or two of low water is something growers know how to deal with.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, and we’ve been through droughts before — two years, let’s say, at a time,” said Ernie Weir. “And we’ve dealt with that.”

a bald man in a blue t-shirt standing in a field of green stalks that reach over his head
Ernie Weir of Hagafen has seen it all, and persevered.

Weir’s Hagafen Winery in Napa Valley has been producing kosher wine for decades; it has even been served at the White House. But not knowing how long a drought will last creates a baseline of uncertainty that is stressful for all winemakers.

“That’s one of the scary things about climate change,” Lehmann said.

It was different in the olden days, mused Morgan. Meaning, before 2015.

“Before, we used to worry about rain hitting the grapes toward the end of harvest, and not being able to get the grapes off the vine before the rain,” he said. “Now, we don’t worry about rain, we worry about fire.”

Since 2000, the amount of land that has caught on fire in Northern California each year has ballooned. Of course, fire has always been a danger in California’s dry climate. According to the Los Angeles Times, from 1950 to 1999, a little more than 1 million acres of wine country burned over 50 years. That total may seem like a lot — and it is — which makes it even more jarring to learn that the same number of acres, 1 million-plus, burned in just the past 20 years, from 2000 to 2019.

In October of 2019, the Kincade wildfire raged through Sonoma County, destroying roughly 100 buildings, forcing 185,000 people to evacuate and leading to power outages for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

The 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, was fueled not by space lasers but by drought, the build-up of dry vegetation and extreme winds, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

In 2017, a week after Yom Kippur, the Tubbs Fire started its assault on Santa Rosa, eventually killing 22 and destroying 5,600 structures, including those of URJ Camp Newman.

The drought’s extreme effects on Lake Oroville, July 26, 2021. (Photo/Kelly M. Grow-California Department of Water Resources)
The drought’s extreme effects on Lake Oroville, July 26, 2021. (Photo/Kelly M. Grow-California Department of Water Resources)

It also hit Hagafen.

“We were greatly affected in the 2017 fires,” said Weir. “The winery nearly burned down. Another structure of ours did burn down, and a lot of our equipment burned down, and our vineyards burned.”

Hagafen is replanting vines that were lost, but it’ll take a while before the vines start bearing wine-ready fruit.

“It’s going to take us something like seven or eight years to fully recover from the effects of the fires of 2017,” he said.

And even when vines or wineries are spared, smoke can ruin a harvest by soaking into the skin of the grapes. That’s what happened in 2019, Weir said.

“The smoke was so lingering that it destroyed almost all of the red wine production in Napa in 2020,” he said. “And I’m not exaggerating.”

Berkeley-based Covenant doesn’t grow its own grapes, but Morgan sources from around Northern California. It was a roll of the dice, he said, as to where the smoke blew and which grapes were tainted. Some vineyards were close to fire spots, yet the wind took the smoke elsewhere.

“Other grapes that I have from other vineyards were way far from some of the fires, but the smoke just sat on those vineyards and really affected them,” he said.

Knowing that smoke could be a factor every year means winemakers have to make calculations, Lehmann said.

Len Lehmann of Portola Vineyards in the South Bay.
Len Lehmann of Portola Vineyards in the South Bay.

“We are making more rosé now because that cuts our risk,” he said. “Rosé, and especially white wines, are less at risk.” (Generally red wines are fermented with their skins, while whites are pressed first and can potentially still be made with grapes that were hit with smoke.)

There are other risk factors, too. After PG&E cut power to Lehmann’s vineyard because of an overstrained grid and he had to send 70 workers home, he bought a generator. Fire and risk insurance is also becoming harder to secure and more expensive.

“Insurance is becoming a real problem,” Shakked said.

But all of the winemakers used the same word to describe the people in their industry: resilient. Morgan said they have to be, or they wouldn’t have gone into agriculture, where uncertainty and risk are part of the game.

“We’re resilient and we find solutions, because we can’t afford not to find solutions,” said Morgan.

And there are upsides to drought. Sometimes crops are smaller, but end up being stellar.

“The grape, it can be super in these years,” Weir said. “I think that’s what we’re going to see in 2021.”

And Morgan is optimistic growers and winemakers can cope with whatever nature throws their way, even as the effects of climate change become more and more stark.

“I used to freak out 20 years ago, when the temperatures were getting towards 100 degrees, and I thought, oh my God, my grapes are going to die, my vines are going to die and everything’s going to be a disaster,” he said. “We’ve actually learned to deal.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.