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Dirt Farmer

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

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Thus, as dry-farmed California wines stole the 1976 show in Paris, drip irrigation was steadily advancing into wine country. As it did, yields and acreage began to grow, many say wine quality began to suffer and the water table began to drop in some areas. Though California's surface water has been carefully regulated for more than a century, its subsurface water has not. "Whoever has the deepest straw gets the water," Bernier laments. (But that's about to change. See News, p8.)

Those deep straws have replaced the deep roots that grape vines would normally grow. Instead, thanks to drip irrigation, grape roots congregate near the drip nozzles at the surface, rather than going to the trouble of plunging deep into the terroir-rich earth in search of moisture. The shallow roots, as well as other softening effects of too much water—mold, for example—are a big reason why it's common for vineyards to be torn up and replaced every 20 years.

Dry-farmed vineyards, by contrast, can produce for centuries. There are still a handful of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and San Joaquin counties that haven't been watered since the 1800s, if ever. Today, wine grapes are dry-farmed as far south as Paso Robles.

Dry Creek, and the Russian River it feeds, are salmon and steelhead streams. But in 2001, only 10 coho salmon returned to the river. Since then, over $10 million has poured into restoring salmonid habitat, resulting in only marginal improvements that have been severely hampered during the drought. The National Marine Fisheries Service lists agriculture as the number one threat to the Russian River coho. And by "agriculture" they mean vineyards.

Between 1997 and 2013, Sonoma County vineyard acreage grew from 40,001 to 64,073 acres, according to the Sonoma County Agriculture Department, with most of that expansion occurring in the Russian River watershed.

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Sonoma County, like many parts of California, is currently home to a heated battle over water. Residential landowners are being told they can't sprinkle their lawns, while grape growers are left to self-police their own water use, unmetered. Vineyard wells put tremendous pressure on the aquifers, while many pump water directly from creeks and the river, with intake pipes as wide as 24-inches across. The vineyards pump not only for irrigation, but for frost protection as well—the timing of which puts immense pressure on the waterways, and the fish that live there.

While dry farming has become a buzzword of late, it's what Bernier does with his compost that has allowed him to excel. The old Italian guys taught him to pile pumice—the remains after pressing—around the base of the vines. Eventually, Bernier began composting his pumice, and bringing it to his vines by the wheelbarrow load. One fall, he ended up making a bigger pile of compost at the base of a particular vine, such that it piled around the vine's trunk. The following spring, he noticed the excess compost, and pulled it off the vine.

There were grape roots crisscrossing the compost. The plant had sent roots through its own bark, straight out of the trunk and into the compost.

"The plant sensed the nutrients and wanted it," Bernier says. He's been laying it on thick ever since. Today, he puts 30 tons of pumice compost on each acre of grapes. Compost is the only thing Bernier irrigates.

The piles live on rented land, and Bernier pays rent by assessing a fee to wineries in exchange for permission to dump their waste from pressing. They pay him, in other words, to deliver the raw materials for the compost in which his success is rooted.

When we arrive, the 100-yard piles are steaming. As his dogs frolic about and munch the gorgeous, multicolored pumice, Bernier sticks his thermometer into the center of the pile and takes its temperature. Then he shows me the compost turner that he designed and built, fashioned from old truck parts. Bernier is, at heart, an engineer and tinkerer. The design of his compost turner has been widely copied by farmers from as far away as India.

As we stand among his piles, Bernier points to some grapes on a neighboring property. Irrigation pipe weaves through the trellised plants. The same nozzles used to deliver water, he says, often pump fertilizer to the plants as well, in a process dubbed "fertigation."

Vines become addicted to fertigation, Bernier says, "like the alcoholic who shows up at the bar at 6am waiting for it to open."

Bernier compares these vines—addicted, helpless and disoriented—to dry-farmed vines. "When you add water in summer, it sends the plant mixed messages. They don't know if it's May or July or whatever."

With a mix of pity and bemusement, he waves at the fertigated grapes next door, in front of a large house with a manicured green lawn.

"They don't know if they're coming or going," he says.

And then we go back to goofing off.

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