How Soil and Science Help DAOU Conserve Water

California’s climate is ideal for growing many varietals, but its dry conditions often necessitate heavy assistance from irrigation systems.

DAOU Winemaker Daniel Daou said that California’s water problem is exacerbated by too many wineries overwatering their vineyards, further depleting the soil. According to Daou, the typical California vineyard waters its vines between four to six gallons per week.

“Most of the reason is that most soils in California do not successfully support dry farming or deficit irrigation,” Daou said.

But that’s not the case in DAOU’s vineyards, the winemaker said, noting that a couple of factors contribute to DAOU being able to judiciously use water.

One factor is the dirt their vines grow in. DAOU’s vineyards are located on DAOU Mountain in Paso Robles, and the soil up there is calcareous clay, the same soil found in Bordeaux, France. 

Characteristics of calcareous clay soil include alkalinity with high levels of calcium and magnesium carbonate. It’s typically cool in temperature, which provides good water retention and drainage. They have high limestone content, which neutralizes the natural acidity of the soil.

“In wet years, most blocks are dry farmed, and in drought years, deficit irrigation is used,” Daou said. “It means that in drought years, we try to target 4-6 gallons per vine for the whole year to grow our grapes for most blocks. 

“This provides for better quality and allows us to minimize water resources that are so important to the environment.”

The other factor is their attention to technology and collaboration with Dr. Luca Brillante, an enology instructor and researcher who focuses on wine grape production and vineyard management, and teaches in the areas of general viticulture, mechanized viticulture, and advanced grape and vine enterprise management.

Brillante helped DAOU develop a state-of-the-art system that allows them to pinpoint which blocks require irrigation.

The cyber-physical system is based on data acquired over the years on a network of smart locations with characteristic plant, soil, and viticulture management properties. The data are processed through state-of-the-art AI methods and refined with ground-based quality control in a few specific areas to improve accuracy.

The system helps forecast plant water status in space and time at the estate scale to inform irrigation scheduling and help us save water and preserve terroir expression, Daou explained.

“This helps us to never take a shotgun approach in using our water resources – a practice, unfortunately, that is often used with vineyards,” DAOU said. “We are pleased to announce that the system is live and working exceptionally well. Our normal irrigation schedule for most blocks involves irrigating one gallon in spring for the sake of fertigation, then after veraison giving some blocks one gallon a week for 3-4 weeks to get to harvest if needed in drought years. 

“In wet years, this is often not needed.”

The system helped them look proactively days in advance and see which blocks require water. They were able to determine that only a few blocks in the entire vineyard needed water during the post-veraison cycle, allowing them to save gallons of water.

“Having a proactive approach will yield much better results,” he said. “The difference can be huge, and it helps preserve water resources.”

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