A weekly look at SoCal life covering news, arts and culture, and more.
Hosted by John Rabe
Business & Economy

In Napa and beyond, winemaking depends on witches

Self-described "Water Witcher" Marc Mondavi charges $500 for his services and claims a 95% success rate.
Eric Risberg/AP
Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//21/media-21739/large.jpg This is photograph D 9817 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. 1942: George Casely uses a hazel twig to attempt to find water on the land around his Devon farm Agriculture in Britain- Life on George Casely's Farm, Devon, England, 1942 George Casely uses a hazel twig to find water on the land around his Devon farm. According to the original caption "Casely has the power of divining and has sunk a well in several of his pastures".
Imperial War Museums Archive, UK
Marc Mondavi dowses for water on the property of Chip Young (left).
Alica Forneret
Self-proclaimed "water witch extraordinaire" Marc Mondavi gives a dowsing demonstration at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, CA.
Eric Risberg/AP

Listen to story

Download this story 8MB

How do you find water in California's drought stricken wine country? You can pay thousands for a scientific survey or — for about $500 — hire a "water witch."

Damian Grindley, a two decade veteran of wine-making recently bought a winery of his own in Paso Robles. The property came with one water well, but soon needed another, so he got on the phone with the local well driller — who referred him to the local water witch.

Water witches, or dowsers, usually use a pair of L-shaped metal rods to find water. They'll walk the property holding the rods, and once they find what they're looking for, the rods will cross. Totally on their own, they say.

Dowsers are surprisingly popular in modern agriculture — Grindley says at least half of the winemakers in his part of Paso Robles use them.

One of California's most prominent dowsers is Napa's Marc Mondavi — a member of the famed winemaking Mondavi family. He offers his services for $500, a fraction of what a geologist would charge to survey the land.

"I’m referred to by most of the well drillers here in the valley, when people call them to drill a well. They would rather have a spot marked by a dowser than just randomly pick a spot, because there’s not water everywhere," says Mondavi. "And with today’s drought here in California, I’ve been very busy."

Mondavi claims a success rate of over 95 percent and says he keeps logbooks to prove it. When I ask him about skeptics, he doesn’t get defensive or worked up. Like most of the dowsers I’ve talked to, Mondavi doesn’t seem to mind that science is not on his side.

Allen Christensen with the U.S. Geological Survey says that geologists have some high-tech methods for finding underground water, but for the most part, they’re making educated guesses. They look at the shape and height of the land, the levels of nearby wells and other clues, like plants. Sometimes, though, you really just have to drill to find out.

Christensen says there's no scientific proof that dowsing works. So why do dowsers still get work? Even huge wine companies, like Mondavi and Bronco — the producers of Trader Joe's Charles Shaw — use dowsers to find water.

Christensen has a theory:

"I still think it’s more of a person who really understands the lay of the land more than it is an actual fact. They have similar experiences to drillers. So they already have a very good knowledge of how water is and where water is gonna be. So generally, a dowser won’t dowse in an area where he clearly doesn’t think there’s gonna be water."

If he's right, then dowsers are using the same clues a geologist would – they just don’t realize they’re doing it.

Damian Grindley, the Paso Robles winemaker, seems ambivalent about the practice. "Wine’s got a lot of art to it as well," he says. "Planting your vineyard, and developing your property, and looking for water — you know, maybe there’s a little bit of art and little bit of science in it too. I mean, there’s winemakers out there who will only pick their fruit by a full moon and they swear by it. There’s no scientific evidence, but a lot of them make great wine."