Flooding in Wine Country The chairman of the Enology and Viticulture Department at the University of California, Davis, talks about the flooding in Northern California and what this might mean for the wine industry.

Flooding in Wine Country

Flooding in Wine Country

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The chairman of the Enology and Viticulture Department at the University of California, Davis, talks about the flooding in Northern California and what this might mean for the wine industry.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington and here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.

Bad weather is causing problems in two parts of the country. In parts of California, drenching rains have caused serious flooding problems. More on that in a minute. And in parts of Texas and Oklahoma, dry conditions have led to widespread grass fires.

And some 13 miners are trapped after an explosion at a coal mine in rural northern West Virginia. Rescue efforts have been hampered by dangerous gases venting from the seams.

You can hear details on those stories and much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, a new study finds that men and women use the Internet differently. Women want relationships, men want information. I'm Neal Conan. Venus, Mars and the Internet gender divide tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

As we mentioned, Northern California is cleaning up after a soggy New Year's weekend. Two powerful storms sent water surging over the banks of rivers and creeks, flooding homes and businesses, leaving a mess of mud and debris. The Napa River overflowed its banks and sent water pouring into the streets, displacing more than 4,000 people.

Napa, of course, is the heart of a region known for its wines. And joining us to discuss the impact of the floods on California vineyards is James Wolpert. He's the chairman of the enology and viticulture department at the University of California, Davis.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. JAMES WOLPERT (University of California at Davis): Thanks, Neal. It's great to be with you.

CONAN: What's the initial damages estimate for the vineyards thus far?

Dr. WOLPERT: Well, that's hard to gauge right now. The damage to vineyards is really not to the plants themselves in terms of the flooding. The vines are dormant. They can withstand two to maybe even as many as four weeks underwater with causing no damage. Where we really have to wait for the waters to recede is to know what kind of damage there was to the actual vineyard site itself in terms of the trellises because as the water tops over the riverbanks, it begins to flow through the vineyards, of course, it carries with it lots of limbs and debris and that catches up in the wires and and in the trellis system and it can cause considerable damage to vineyards as a result of that flow.

CONAN: And if the vines are connected, it can rip all that stuff out?

Dr. WOLPERT: Exactly, yeah. It's a tremendous potential for damage there.

CONAN: The vines themselves, though, from what you're saying, they sound pretty rugged.

Dr. WOLPERT: They are. They're dormant and in that condition they can stay there for quite a while under water. Of course, that changes as we get later in the year. If this flood were to occur in March after the buds have begun to grow and then, of course, the vines are very, very sensitive to having what we call wet feet.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WOLPERT: Right now, they're doing well. But we're also very concerned about the potential for damage on the upland parts of vineyards.

CONAN: Why there particularly?

Dr. WOLPERT: Well, we've moved more of our viticulture off of the valley floors. I mean, the fact that we call them Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, of course, means that there's hills that surround them and that's where the runoff occurs that floods the rivers like Napa... and Russian. But as we've moved up to those hillsides where some of the high quality, especially red wine grape vineyards, they're up--because of that slope are very prone to erosion. So we get more--almost double the rainfall that we would see at Napa on the valley floor; we'll see double that up in the hills and the potential for erosion is terrific. So we've taken, as an industry, extraordinary means to try to prevent that.

CONAN: As you mentioned, obviously, if you're going to have a flood, you couldn't pick a better time. In the spring you've got buds and if it rains too much in the fall at harvest time it could ruin your whole crop.

Dr. WOLPERT: Exactly, yeah. So if you were to try to pick a time when you'd, you know, be able to tolerate some extra rain, it is now. But, boy, the damage to the infrastructure of that vineyard is really what's on peoples' minds right now.

CONAN: We don't tend to think of vineyards having infrastructure.

Dr. WOLPERT: Well, there's lots of equipment around. There's pumps and that sort of thing that pump the water to them during the summertime. But also, as I mentioned to you, this trellis issue is huge because once that debris gets into a vineyard, then you can't have tractor movement through there. So you've got to send, you know, some crews through and pick up all the debris and it's just a headache for vintners.

CONAN: The world, it seems, has had a glut of good grapes in recent years, which has, of course, lowered wine prices. Will this flooding, do you think, have any effect?

Dr. WOLPERT: No, it's very unlikely to have a significant effect. I mean, it's not like Katrina and gas prices. I mean, there's nothing like that in store. But--in fact, if anything the price of wine--what you can get for the price that you pay, the value that you have--is actually improved. So prices have come down for high-quality wine and that's always good. I mean, it's good for the consumer.

CONAN: Is it likely to reorient parts of California's wine industry from Napa and Russian Valleys further south, for example?

Dr. WOLPERT: No, I don't think so. This is something that we have every now and then. We had it in '97. We had it in '91. We had it in '86. So about every five to seven years we have more of our rain coming in bunches rather than spread out and we get these kinds of situations that occur. And so growers and vintners are very attuned to taking, you know, precautions against them and trying to keep the risk to, you know, to a minimum.

CONAN: So if--it seems like you think the industry is going to survive this no problem.

Dr. WOLPERT: Well, I think, like I say, it'll cause localized headaches and costs and that sort of thing to growers whose vineyards have been damaged, but we're a resilient industry. We probably have something on the order of a couple of thousand acres right now, maybe as high as 10,000, that might be flooded. I think that's--perhaps it's too early to tell--that might be a high number. But we have 900,000 acres of grapes in California. So I mean, relatively speaking, to the--it's on peoples', you know, minds because it's Napa Valley and that's where some of our finest wines are made, of course. But we'll get through this just fine.

CONAN: Dr. James Wolpert, thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. WOLPERT: Nice being with you, Neal.

CONAN: James Wolpert is chairman of UC Davis' enology and viticulture department and he joined us from his office there.

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