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Grape growers worried about a return to drought - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Grape growers worried about a return to drought

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Winemaking is a major industry on the Central Coast but some farmers are getting that uneasy feeling that they may not have enough crop to sell to winemakers.

Erich Russell, the owner of Rabbit Ridge Winery in Paso Robles, has been growing his own grapes for more than 30 years and says while a vineyard can survive a drought, he's not sure for how long.

"These vines have struggled so much because of the drought, they haven't quite recovered yet," said Russell.

Seventy expansive acres of grape vines make for a beautiful sight but Russell knows his crops are struggling.

"Right now, we're really worried that there's no moisture in the ground and the temperatures are making it worse because being hot makes the ground warm, no moisture makes the ground warmer," Russell explained.

Last year, his vineyard saw 30 inches of rain by this point in the season. This season so far, Russell says his crops have received less than two inches. He's now irrigating to save what vines he can.

"We're trying to give them just enough water to survive and hoping that, somehow, some way, we get a good rainstorm that'll moisturize the ground."

Russell says the heat and lack of rain have caused the vines to bud early. If winter returns and the buds freeze, they may not grow back. Even if grapes grow, they may not survive.

"So if we get to the point where it's June and we see everything is struggling, we'll go through and start taking crop off."

Fearing this year will mimic the conditions of 2015's drought, Russell created contingency plans.

"We're, right now, not selling any more grapes to other wineries and we made a commitment to keep our best grapes, which is basically this vineyard, for ourselves."

One section of vines uses 2,400 gallons of water an hour when the irrigation system is running. Russell worries the wells he relies on for that water may not be replenished this year without rain.

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