Bree and Kevin Klotter have a four-acre vineyard in Redwood Valley, California. Although that watershed is the northern source of the Russian River, its agricultural water rights were curtailed in April, owing to the current drought.
The Klotters migrated to Mendocino County from Contra Costa County, where Bree had worked in operations for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in 2015. They subsequently lost their house in the Redwood Valley fire of 2017, the year of the catastrophic blazes that also incinerated parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties.
The interview has been edited and condensed.—David Darlington
I’m a fifth-generation Californian. After I retired, I thought: Why am I still in Livermore? And when we drove onto this property, we said, ‘This is it.’ It’s on the west side of the valley with a beautiful view and vineyards around the house –zinfandel, clone six on St. George and AXR rootstock, planted in 1978 and 1988. The AXR has phylloxera and is in decline – it’s producing okay, but not thriving as well as the St. George, which looks fabulous even in this heat. We’ve spent six years and a lot of time and money trying to make the vineyard healthy again; we pulled out vines that were struggling and planted a thousand new ones. It’s gradually coming into balance, but it’s not there yet – it will take another couple of years. This drought is not helping.
I’m on the board of Redwood Valley water district. We buy all of our water, whether from the Russian River flood control or districts to the south that have wells. Those provide most of our municipal drinking water, but growers don’t get that – we buy ag water from the flood control district and Lake Mendocino. It’s an old system – there are underground pipes all through the valley, and everybody has a meter that lets them pull water out of the ag lines. Redwood Valley has always had access to that water, but it was cut off on April 19.
Now there’s no water for agriculture unless you have it on your own property. Some people have ponds and were able to fill them before the ag system got cut off; we have a well that gets two to three gallons a minute, and we put in another holding tank that stores four thousand gallons. We’re watering the youngsters once every week to five days, depending how hot it gets. They’re not going to survive without water. [With the amount we’re giving them,] they’ll survive but not thrive. That’s our goal for this year. There’s no water for the rest of the vineyard, which is normally irrigated. The older established vines on St. George are doing okay; I wouldn’t say they’re happy, but they have nice-looking clusters. The AXR clusters are smaller – the leaves and the vines are more stressed.
I’m also on the board of the Mendocino Winegrowers, and everybody is saying it’s a really weird year. Redwood Valley is the only [place] that hasn’t had any ag water since April, but everybody throughout the area noted late budbreak and [retarded] shoot growth. We had a hard frost in early November before the vines shut down for the winter, and this spring we had no water, so things started breaking for me really, really late, and a lot of the shoots didn’t have the growth they typically would. St. George is a vigorous rootstock – it’s not unusual for the canes to be ten feet long, but this year, the shoots were not growing. There was no growth at all on some vines – our vineyard manager, Peter Chevalier, was getting really worried. The fruit set was late, clusters and berries were much smaller than usual, and lots of canes and shoots never got to the first trellis wire. On those we cut off the fruit; if it got to the second wire, we cut off either one or both clusters, depending on how weak or sturdy the canes looked. With the youngsters, we’ve made no effort at all to leave any fruit on them.
In late August, some of our clusters were still completely green. It was a good thing our buyer wanted fruit at lower Brix, which allowed us to harvest early [on September 9] – if we had waited another couple of weeks, we would have seen significant raisining, thanks to both the extreme heat this summer and the inability to irrigate at all. Our tonnage was already down thirty percent, and we probably would have had to drop another twenty percent of the fruit. And we still don’t have any water, so I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to put some nutrients on the vines and give them a good soaking before they go to sleep for the winter. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we get enough rain this winter to saturate the soil so we can start next year off on a decent footing.
I’m doing my best to work with this, and others are doing the same. But everybody’s under stress. For those of us who survived the 2017 fires, our PTSD keeps coming back in summer and fall. [That year] we were supposed to harvest before the fire happened. But the winery had no tank space, so we put it off until Monday – and the fire started Sunday night. It was in the northern part of the valley; the watershed area comes out of the hills to the river, and the fire came up [from that direction]. We were in the southern end of the fire zone, and we were the last homes on the north side to get hit.
We left at 1:15 a.m., and by 9 a.m., our neighbor told us our house was gone. When we got back on the property on Thursday, there was nothing left [except the vineyard]. Some vines got toasted; their clusters were barbecued. But most looked great – the vineyard is green, and there was nothing under the vines to really catch fire, so we still had a crop. It was harvested that Friday, and we got about eighteen tons. [The winemaker] tried to get the smoke taint out, but ended up selling it on bulk market.
In the area west of us, four houses burned down – some to ashes where the one right next door was untouched. It’s so capricious. We rebuilt our house with fire-safe materials as much as possible; our insurance coverage wasn’t enough to rebuild both the garage and the barn – it let us rebuild a single building, so now we have a metal shed and a two-story garage/workshop with a concrete floor. Our deck is non-wood, and there’s a concrete perimeter and at least five feet of gravel around the entire house. It would be more difficult [to burn] now, because there are no trees around it. We used to have five or six pines, a couple of redwoods, and four old, old oaks, seventy feet tall, providing shade all around the house. On the night of the fire, Kevin looked up at the roof and saw a bunch of pine needles that needed to be cleaned off. I was not as worried about it as I should have been. The fire took care of that.
I’m not so worried now about the northern part of the valley. It already burned. But there are a whole bunch of homes in the south valley with trees around them. Who wants to cut down trees? They’re good for shade and for wildlife. But fire doesn’t care.
This is just part of the summer and fall in California now. We get up in morning and scan for fires. My main partner is Mother Nature; every year is a matter of how we negotiate with each other. But right now she’s got the upper hand, and she’s not particularly happy.
W&S's James Beard Award—winning special correspondent David Darlington is the author of five books, among them An Ideal Wine and Angels' Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel (later retitled Zin).
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