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Dirt Farmer

Paul Bernier's vines are celebrated for what they lack: water

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That cost savings, combined with the premium Bernier can charge for his grapes, more than makes up for the slightly reduced yield a dry farmer can expect. In late summer, when I visited, there isn't much for Bernier to do but monitor the sugar content of his grapes and taking his compost pile's temperature.

The old timers, Bernier explains, have so little to do this time of year, they would "hit them with sulphur, pack up their wagons and go fishing for rock fish and abalone at the coast." They wouldn't come home until it was almost time to harvest the grapes. Bernier keeps this tradition alive in his own way. Walking through downtown Healdsburg one day, he pulls out his camera and shows me a selfie he took 300 feet up a redwood tree, a half-day climb. He also does a lot of sailing with his grandkids on Lake Sonoma above Dry Creek Valley—a reservoir that, ironically, was created in part to capture water with which to irrigate grapes.

Grapes aren't the only crop that can be dry-farmed in California. Early Girl tomatoes from Monterey Bay are legendary for their rich flavor and surprising juiciness. There are dry-farmed potatoes, squash, quinoa, apples and nuts, as well as the juiciest melon you will ever try—the Crane melon from New Family Farm in Sebastopol. Even almonds, perhaps the most notorious of California's water-wasting crops, can be dry-farmed. Indeed, almonds once thrived, water-free, in San Obispo, southern Monterey County and in the Sierra Foothills.

While there is a lot of pre-harvest goofing off to do later in the year, a dry farmer has to pay his dues in spring. When the rain stops and the soil dries, a dry farmer gets cultivating. This means working to break up the soil, uprooting the weeds and generally disrupting the ground's structure, especially the soil capillaries formed by escaping water that become conduits for more water to follow.

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Bernier only works with "head-trained" vines, which are free-standing little trees, rather than viney plants that hang on trellises. He uses a small, crawling tractor to cross-cultivate his grapes on two axes, something you can't do with trellised vines. The work, he admits, "can be a bit diesel-intensive."

After cultivating, the broken earth is left to dry into dust as the summer wears on. With no irrigation happening, weeds don't have a chance to get started. And without any capillary structure to the soil, the dry earth acts like a seal, keeping the moisture in. In the heat of summer, the water "wants" to get out of the ground and into the dry air. The dry farmer gives the water no avenue of escape but through the plant.

In between visits to local wineries, we make the rounds of the "ranches," as he calls them, that Bernier manages. (He also has a few acres planted at home, which he calls Paul Bernier Zinyards.) At each stop, his dogs, Finn and Wasabi, scamper about, sniffing at the bases of the vines, chasing mice and nibbling the occasional fruit, as does Bernier.

As he cruises his ranches, Bernier effuses old-Italian-guy wisdom. He points out the various grape varieties, which he can distinguish according to the differing hues of green in their leaves. While all of his ranches grow primarily Zinfandel, they contain other varieties, such as Carignane, a classic blending grape.

"Back in the day," says Bernier, "they would hide Carignane underneath the Zinfandel vines, because they bear more and are worth less."

The ranches also grow the occasional Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties. Those are fine, Bernier says, but he avoids white wine grapes. "They're too fussy."

Sensitive, that is.

At each stop, Bernier grabs grapes from a scattering of vines. Back at the truck, he mashes them together with a mortar and pestle, and pours the pulp into the brix meter. After registering the sugar content of the vines at each ranch, Bernier tips back the leftover grape juice.

The first grapes in California were dry-farmed. The practice was still commonplace, but on the decline, in 1976. That year, dry-farmed Napa Valley wines swept the prestigious Paris Tasting Competition, which was expected to be won by French wines. It was a watershed moment for California wine, and put the Napa region on the map as a wine heavyweight.

Irrigation was first brought to California's wine country in the form of overhead sprinklers that were initially used to thwart frost in spring. In freezing temperatures, a coating of water will shield the emergent buds, buying a few precious degrees of wiggle room.

Growers quickly realized that irrigating throughout the growing season would produce larger yields, and the practice became widespread. In 1971, drip irrigation arrived in Napa, and was hailed as water-saving technology at the time.

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