The drive around the Panoche Circle near Mendota, Calif., in western Fresno County is a picturesque experience with a cornucopia of vegetable, fruit, and tree nut crops.

Located on Panoche Road in the circle are the Cardella Ranch and Winery. The ranch is a family-owned, 3,000-acre farm with two-thirds row crops and one-third permanent crops. The mix includes 1,000 acres of processing and fresh tomatoes, 500 acres of almonds, 300 acres of fresh-market onions, 150 acres of Pima cotton, and 500 acres of wine grapes.

The almonds are a joint endeavor between the Cardella family and a partner.

Carlo Cardella moved from Italy to the West Side around 1902. His grandson Rod planted the first wine grapes, French Colombard, in 1982. Rod’s son Nathan began making wine in 1994.

Nathan, 33, wears the hats of grape grower, vintner and marketer. He earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology from California State University, Fresno. He is a director on the SJV Winegrowers Association Board.

Other varietals grown include Ruby Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, Barbera, Grenache, Rubired, and Muscat. Chardonnay grapes are purchased from a neighbor.

Ninety-eight percent of the fruit is sold to large wineries throughout California. Nathan crafts the remainder into estate wine. Cardella wines have earned 20-plus awards including gold medals for Sangiovese and Merlot at last year’s 2011 Finger Lakes (New York) International Wine Competition. 

In this year’s California State Fair commercial wine judging competition, three 2010 Cardella wines — Merlot, Syrah, and Moscato — won Best of Class awards. In addition, Cardella’s Ruby Cabernet and Sangiovese won gold medals at this year’s SJV Winegrowers Association competition.

"I am absolutely stunned at how well our wines scored,” Cardella said. “Our grapes have a nice aroma, ample sugar content, good acid content, and tannins which make good wine.”

Costco in Fresno purchased 50 cases of Cardella’s Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, and Chardonnay. Costco allowed Cardella to promote the wines in the store for three days this summer to share the wine attributes with customers.

“My original view of Costco was a company that didn’t care much for the little guy,” Cardella said. “The fact that Costco allows a small guy trying to make a name for his family to promote their product in the store is truly amazing. I am very thankful.”

While the Cardella farming operation has prospered overall, the largest challenge on the West Side is an ongoing surface water shortage. An estimated 200,000 acres of West Side row and permanent cropland are fallowed due to the lack of water.

Water worries

In addition to California’s ongoing battle with drought, the water shortage is also caused by environmental activists who advocate maintaining water in the Delta region to the north for fish habitat — reducing water releases to the south.

“The water outlook on the West Side is grim,” Cardella explained. “The politics surrounding the water issue forces farmers to speculate on which crops to grow without knowing if the water will be available. Current dead orchards illustrate where some farmers guessed wrong.”

In 2010, the Cardellas fallowed 1,000 acres due to water reductions. No acreage was fallowed last year. About 700 acres are fallowed this year with a 40 percent federal water allocation.

Overall, the Cardellas have managed to stay above water despite the water shortage by striking a balance between permanent and row crops. When the federal water allocation is zero percent, the row crop fields can be fallowed while the trees and vines are watered.

Nathan Cardella credits the farm’s miserly use of water on several other factors. The farm’s 100 percent use of surface and subsurface irrigation saves large amounts of water annually. Surface drip irrigation waters the orchards and vineyards. Subsurface drip waters the row crops.

The area’s heavy Panoche sandy-loam soil has good water-holding capacity which also helps. The use of tomato transplants, instead of seeds, save several inches of water annually on the 1,000 acres of tomatoes.

“We look at water like a truck driver looks at diesel,” Cardella said. “We can tell you almost to the gallon how much we are spending. We are as efficient with water as we can be, but the noose is still getting tighter.”

Cardella added, “Water is a sore subject out here. It dominates conversations. When farmers gather, they talk about water instead of which growing methods do and do not work.”

The price tag this year for federal water for the Cardellas is $120 per acre foot. The Cardellas purchased additional surface water on the open market at $350 per acre foot.

Well water is a last resort. It cost about $200 per acre foot to lift water from 800-foot to 1,000-foot-deep wells to the surface, then treat the water for high sodium content (1,800 parts per million), and run the water to the fields.

In the vineyards, Cardella wine grapes grown for the large wineries receive 2.5 to 2.75 acre feet of water annually. The grapes for estate wines, which are grown differently, can get by with 1 to 1.5 acre feet of water.

The annual rainfall in the area measures about 8 inches annually.

High yields

Despite the West Side water issues, the good news is higher yields gained in this area help offset water costs. Crop yields can average about 10 percent higher compared to the same crops grown elsewhere in the SJV.

“Our yield bar is about 10 percent higher yields across the board,” Cardella said. “Yet the problem remains — we don’t have a consistent supply of water.”

The yield boost pushes almond yields at Cardella Ranch into the 4,000-pounds-per-acre range annually. Cotton fields have 20 percent more cotton compared to other areas.

For wine grapes, 10 tons to 20 tons-per-acre is the average yield, depending on the year. A bumper crop can total 25 tons per acre.

Cardella grapes last year brought $450 per ton for Merlot, and $350 per ton for Ruby Cabernet and Sangiovese grapes.

Most Cardella estate wines are made from the family’s own grapes. Grapes are occasionally purchased from vineyards 10 miles away, but none from the Coast.

Pest and disease issues in grapes include leafhoppers, mites, powdery mildew, and bunch root — usually at low, controllable levels.

All grapes are grown on a two-wire vertical trellis with an 18-inch cross arm.

For grapes grown for the Cardella label, Cardella uses these grape-growing practices:

1 - Plant vines which like warm weather — most vines do.

2 - Do not over irrigate during the growing season.

3 - “Trim the fat” — remove unnecessary shoots or those growing in a poor position.

4 - Remove leaves in the fruit zone early in the season to increase sunlight penetration.

The latter method increases the canopy airflow which reduces powdery mildew pressure. It also allows more sunlight to penetrate the canopy. The canopy remains cools and creates less humidity which improves grape quality.

Cardella says his most important tool for estate wine is hand harvesting versus machine picking.

“As a small winemaker who doesn’t have the technology to sort everything at the winery, I sort the grapes in the vineyard,” Cardella said.

Mature fruit is picked with the right amount of sugar, tannin, color, and flavor.

“This takes my wine up a notch to compete with the guys doing the same practices in the more well-known California wine regions.”

Cardella estate wines sell for $12 to $20 a bottle. The best seller is Ruby Cabernet; second is Sangiovese.

Cardella says each California wine region has its own best varietal.

“The Napa area says it makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Paso Robles area it’s the best Syrah, and the Lodi area claims to make the best Zinfandel. The San Joaquin Valley makes the best Ruby Cabernet.”

Cardella concluded, “I am trying to create a product which I want the community to drink. We are not about getting rich from making wine. We want to create a sustainable living for the Cardella family for the future.” 

cblake@farmpress.com