Help Conserve Precious Water - Drink Rare Utah Wines
During our October 2009, visit to Moab, Utah, we noticed that fall color had arrived in the Spanish Valley. The deciduous trees showed bright yellow leaves, but the scarcity of freezing weather had produced few of the burnt-orange or flame-red leaves we had hoped to see.
Before the sun drops behind the Moab Rim, there is often good light to the north and east. From my vantage point at the Moab Rim CamPark, the Slickrock sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Likewise, the Moab Rim reflected light along the length of its crest. To the east, clouds shaded the La Sal Range. Dark green foliage faded into dark gray granite near their summit. As the cloud formation moved slowly across the sky, its virga veil trailed below. With the recent warm, dry weather, there was no snow, even on the highest peaks. In the high country, autumn was over, but winter had not yet begun. From the top to bottom, the relict forest of aspen seemed to have dropped its leaves all at once, leaving behind only a trace of color.
The next morning, Carrie McCoy and I set off to explore in and around the Spanish Valley. Our first stop was at Johnsons on Top, a mesa bounded by Mill Creek Canyon to the north and the Spanish Valley to the south. Several years ago, Grand County and the State of Utah approved a low-density, high-end residential development on that mesa. When the real estate market dematerialized, that project, known as Cloudrock went on hiatus.
Since last year, the only “improvement” to the mesa was additional signage admonishing off-road vehicle drivers to stay on the road. For years, the access gate at the road has made it look like an entrance to private property. Only the locals and a few Moab old-timers know that there is an undeveloped mesa at Johnsons on Top. It follows that marauding outsiders probably did not make the many off-road tracks we saw that day. More likely, some locals felt entitled to make a social road wherever and whenever they pleased, even if it was across Utah Trust Land.
At the far rim of the mesa, we snapped our “MoabLive” outdoor portraits. From that high ground, we saw Mill Creek Canyon below. The dust storms of spring 2009 had hastened snowmelt upstream in the La Sal Mountains. Pools of sand, terraced in the streambed, provided an illusion of flowing water. A photo of the La Sal Mountains that we took from that spot one year prior showed a snowpack at high elevation.
When the creek went dry, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) had to close its Sheley Diversion Tunnel from Mill Creek. When water no longer flowed down the tunnel to Ken’s Lake, the reservoir had no other replenishment source. By October 2009, demand for irrigation had drained the reservoir almost to the elevation of its outfall pipe. Over-subscription and overuse of Ken’s Lake water resources are now a fact. If early snowmelt becomes the norm, future years may bring only one brief shot at filling Ken’s lake. As the major source of irrigation water for the Spanish Valley, that resource may now too valuable to support large-scale alfalfa farming in the desert.
Using data collected in 2001, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality/Division of Water Quality (DEQ/DWQ) found increased temperature to be the major “pollutant” present in Ken’s Lake. Blaming it on solar heating alone, the DEQ/DWQ petitioned the U.S. EPA to reclassify the lake as a “warm water fishery”, rather than to find ways to retain its old designation as a “cold water fishery”. In so doing, they ignored the fact that only 400 acre feet of water is normally present in Ken's Lake at the end of any summer season. Perhaps it was not obvious to the state agency, but such a small pool of water exposed to the summer sun near Moab would rise in temperature.
The solution to this dilemma rests largely with farmers in the Spanish Valley. By leaving a higher residual waterline in the lake each year, that larger mass should not heat up as quickly as the smaller pool now does. That would require a "conservation mentality", rather than the current "extraction mentality". In October 2009, there was barely enough water in Ken's Lake to support a small warm water fish population. It would soon drop to its minimum level, after providing Spanish Valley grape growers the final shot of irrigation water necessary to protect their rootstock from the coming winter freeze. In less than ten years, Ken’s Lake has gone from full to empty and from cold to warm. If spring 2010 again brings dust storms to the La Sal Range, expect to see hotter water and less of it at Ken’s Lake. With the recent spate of regional dust storms and the continued drying of the western climate, we believe that the new pattern of rapid snowmelt is likely to continue.
Departing the mesa, we came upon a ridge overlooking the Spanish Valley. From there we saw a high desert environment, sprinkled with irrigated fields, ranchettes and homes. With the Pueblo Verde Tract directly below us, we scanned the valley for other signs of irrigated life. In the center of the valley, we saw greenery that was the vineyards at the Spanish Valley Vineyards and Winery. According to their website, the estate comprises several acres of vineyard and its attendant small farm winery, both of which are owned and operated by the Dezelsky Family. There, they grow and produce wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Gewurztraminer and Riesling grapes, as well as a unique cherry wine.
Having found the tasting room closed Sundays, on a Monday afternoon we made our second attempt to visit the winery. Located on Zimmerman Lane, just off Highway 191 South, the winery would benefit from a “cultural location sign” on the highway. In California, each wine-growing county provides tasteful highway signage directing motorists to local wineries. Perhaps Utah will see both the economic and the environmental light and then begin promoting their rare vineyards and wineries.
When nearby Arches Vineyards and Winery ceased production, the Dezelsky’s bought their remaining stock of bulk wine, finishing it under the Spanish Valley Winery label. In 1998, the owners of Red Cliffs Lodge purchased Arches Winery, collocating it with the lodge and renaming it Castle Creek Winery. When Castle Creek Winery opted to purchase grapes from outside of the state, that left Spanish Valley Winery as the last which grows, produces and bottles only Utah appellation wines. In almost any state other than Utah, that alone would be enough to elevate the winery to the status of a cultural landmark. In a state which legalized bonded wine making only in 1988, the state's overall attitude towards wineries and wine making remains one of indifference and neglect.
One needs to look only as far away as the Mimbres Valley near Deming, New Mexico to find St. Clair Vineyard and Winery producing and bottling a fine New Mexico Zinfandel, among other varietals. Luna Rossa Winery also grows and produces in the Mimbres Valley, at an elevation similar to the Spanish Valley. Both valleys sit atop large aquifers. The sensible way in which New Mexico supports desert viticulture provides an example of how Utah might support its own growers and producers.
As a bonded winery, Spanish Valley Winery represents a way of life once thought to have great promise in Southeastern Utah. Our friend Jim Farrell told us that his Moab Rim Campark used to include the phrase “and Vineyard” on its highway sign. Patrons of the RV Park loved the ambiance that the vineyard provided. When interest in viticulture waned in this century, Jim redeveloped the vineyard into a row of rental spaces for recreational vehicles. Although he enjoyed being a grower, economics dictated that Jim sacrifice romance for economic necessity.
In the 1970s, a University of Arizona viticulture survey found great promise in the Spanish Valley. With its highly mineralized, gravelly soil, hot days and cool nights, the study concluded that the Spanish Valley had potential to become one of the premier viticulture areas in the country. That survey, plus the backing of one Utah state agency encouraged locals to plant grapes. In the late 1980s, just as the first viable crops matured, another state agency declared that winemaking was illegal in Utah. By 1988, when winemaking became legal in Utah, many of the early growers had abandoned or removed their vineyards. The few stalwart growers remaining near Moab have only Spanish Valley and Castle Creek wineries as outlets for the sale of their grapes.
More recently, former Governor Jon Huntsman pushed the Utah legislature to rationalize Utah's liquor laws. Until then, the unofficial stance by the state was disdain for Utah winemaking and sales at its wineries. Since the 1970’s, whenever latter-day Utah wine makers went up against the moral strictures of the Latter Day Saints Church, the winemakers lost every time. Even now, one cannot taste or purchase wine on a Sunday or holiday at any Utah winery. An official summary of Utah Liquor Laws does not even mention wineries or their tasting rooms. With almost sixty days of forced closure each year, how can any business expect to prosper? This is ironic in Utah, which retains a state monopoly on the sale of all packaged liquor, except for beer. With politics, morality and economics stacked against Utah’s small farm wineries, is it any wonder that this potentially rich viticulture area grows alfalfa instead of grapes?
As of this writing, the Spanish Valley Vineyard and Winery is for sale. For over twenty years, the Dezelsky’s have either worked for or owned the operation. By their choice, it is time for them to move on. A sale of the property will allow a new owner to build on their solid reputation as producers of Utah appellation wines. For less than two million dollars, a new owner could own acres of cultivated vineyards, an abundance of high tech equipment and facilities that could handle far larger production.
In 2009, the Christian Science Monitor wrote that the Four Corners area is already hotter and drier than it was fifteen years ago. Not since the Great Disappearance of Pre-Puebloan Indians around 1200 CE, has the climate been this hot or dry. With that knowledge, the State of Utah should actively encourage, rather than discourage its citizens from growing grapes and producing wine. An easy way to show that they care would be to allow bonded wineries to offer tasting and retail sales on Sundays and some holidays. For the moralists among us, the overall consumption of alcohol in Utah would not rise perceptibly. Raising water-stingy grapes with drip-irrigation might then become a viable economic alternative to growing water-thirsty alfalfa in the desert. Additionally, Utah should allow tasteful highway signage, directing visitors to each rare and unique winery in the state.
When dust bowl storms swept across the Great Plains in the 1930’s, the federal government Shelterbelt Program encouraged farmers to plant trees as windbreaks, thus retaining loose soil in their fields. Farmers and ranchers in Southeastern Utah should likewise be encouraged to plant grape-arbor windbreaks adjacent to their fields. By doing so, the arbors could help diminish the intensity of regional dust storms that now plague the area. At Monument Valley High School, Utah, a small plot of grapes grows near the athletic field. Could this signal a renaissance in viticulture in Southeastern Utah? For the sake of the few remaining warm-water fish in Ken’s Lake and all of us who love Utah wines, we hope so.
After leaving the winery, we spotted a large American Bison resting in the well-watered yard of a home on Spanish Valley Drive. In the 1870s, bison herds were so large that transcontinental rail traffic often halted for hours so that the animals could cross the tracks. Despite their historically large numbers, they did not destroy their natural environment. As the wheels of off-road vehicles sink ever deeper into the soft soils of Johnsons on Top and other mesas, we must face facts. Creation of new social roads in the desert threatens both our soil and our water. Inadequate water conservation threatens to leave us like that lone bison, resting under the desert sun on the last patch of irrigated soil in the Spanish Valley.
When off-road enthusiasts eschew new social roads, alfalfa farmers take less water from Ken’s Lake and all of Utah begins supporting its homegrown wine industry, we may yet again see balance in the water cycle of the Spanish Valley, Utah
Email James McGillis