(This article was originally published in my Food Politics column at the TheFasterTimes.com.)
Last week, while visiting my family in Salem, I made a stop at Evesham Wood (one of my favorite U.S. wineries) to talk to owner and winemaker Russ Raney. (Full disclosure: he and his wife attended the same church as my folks so I’ve been a champion of their wines since they founded Evesham Wood in the mid-1980’s.) I was eager to taste his certified organic pinot noirs and French-style chardonnay but also to hear how the recent heat wave had affected his vineyards and the grapes.
I’d noticed, as we drove up the sloping hillside towards the Raney house (the wine cellar, which is modest in size, is appropriately tucked under the Raney home), how green and lush the vineyard looked. It was a hot, dry Oregon summer day and there appeared to be no sprinklers or irrigation pipes anywhere in sight.
When I asked Russ his secret, he launched into an animated discussion about the importance of not irrigating. It turns out Evesham Wood is a charter member of the Deep Roots Coalition, a group of Oregon growers who spurn artificial irrigation for environmental reasons but also because it affects the resiliency of the vines and, ultimately, the taste of the wine.
“If you irrigate, you can’t taste the difference in the wine from year to year,” Russ said. (Which is sort of the whole point of making and drinking wine, if you think about it: a wine’s unique taste comes from its particular terroir and each vintage is different.) If you don’t irrigate, the vines are forced to go deeper into the soil to find water. They also find minerals there that add to the grapes’ complex flavors.
“The roots grow shallower if they’re irrigated, and they get used to the water,” Russ explained. Whereas, during the week of 105-degree-plus weather, Evesham Wood’s vines—some of which reach as far as five feet down—were just fine because their roots are getting adequate moisture from the soil. By comparison, irrigated vines in the Willamette Valley reach only 14 inches below the surface, tops.
This is why wines from places like Walla Walla, an arid wine region in eastern Washington, are suspect (and, it turns out, controversial)—not only from a water conservation perspective but also from an old-world winemaking point-of-view. Deep Roots purists (the practice is also known as “dry farming”) believe wine should not be grown in dry regions, period. The vines that get watered with drip irrigation remind me of humans’ reliance on antibiotics: the more we take indiscriminately, the more our bodies require to wipe out serious bacterial infections such as MRSA. Whereas people whose immune systems are strong from years of taking good care of themselves don’t need antibiotics when they get a simple sinus infection or bacterial infection. Their roots are deep.
We tasted some wines directly from the barrels, including a French-style (unoaked) chardonnay and several pinots, discussed the merits of screw caps (best for young whites and rosés, says Russ, not so much for anything that’s red or aged over a few years), and got Russ’s recommendations for other Oregon wineries who are making phenomenal old-world style wines. One of these was Belle Pente Vineyard in Carlton…