Friday, December 9, 2011

Turning Water Into Wine: 430 Gallons of Water for One Gallon of Central Valley Wine

I just finished reading Wine Wars over the weekend - it's a breathless, breezy read on a smattering of topics. No real wars mentioned, but fun to read anyway.

One of the most interesting sections to me was the one on water use. Mike Vesreth, professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound, better known for his blog, The Wine Economist, says "It takes 75 gallons of water in the vineyard to grow the grapes for one gallon of California North Coast area wine. That seems pretty inefficient until you compare it with Central Valley production, where the ratio is 430 gallons in the vineyard to one gallon of wine!"

(These stats come from the Wine Business Monthly 2008 article The End of Cheap, Plentiful Water.)



California doesn't regulate groundwater, in contrast to Oregon and Washington which do have some regulations.

Understandably, Europeans find it hard to understand the notion of terroir in the U.S. since for the French and the rest of Europe, terroir is not applied to irrigated crops. Terroir is the essence of the land, the grape, the geography, the climate, and other factors expressed in the wine.

It was really only in the 1970s that U.S. wine grapes were irrigated - both to grow them in a desert (the Central Valley for instance) and to increase yields (everywhere in California). Frost protection is another water use for colder climate growers in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake County as well as Napa.

The industry is addicted to water as much as it is to chemicals. (Fewer than 3% of all wine grape acreage in California is certified organic).

In 2009, the California State Dept. of Water Resources fined Gallo $70k for diverting the Russian River to fill an illegal irrigation pond in Sonoma County. Activists in Anderson Valley and elsewhere have been even more alarmed about frost protection practices.

Coincidentally, the day I originally wrote this post (May 31, 2011 - I just published it today), the New York Times' Science Times section, ran a story entitled "Groundwater Depletion Is Detected From Space," appeared on the rapidly declining water table in California's Central Valley, tellingly revealed via satellite data.

As you can see in the infographic on the right, the darkest areas are the ones with the greatest level of decrease in the last 7 years. The Central Valley is the darkest area in the state, having reduced its groundwater reserves 11 feet in the last seven years.

And just what is California's major crop - what is it that we are making with all our water? Wine grapes and almonds are our two biggest cash crops (after dairy).

The state produced $2.2 billion in wine grapes alone (not counting wine) in 2009-2010 on 489,000 acres of land, according to the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture's annual report.

While other crops use water at higher rates (rice and cotton), the story of water use in the wine grape industry has not really been told. The overall water use is a subject we, the public, know little about.

Alice Feiring wrote about coming water issues in a 2007 article that is one of the more insightfully written pieces on the subject:


Those who endorse dry farming see things in a starker light. "The mind-set of irrigation needs to be challenged. It is just like the great gas-guzzling cars that we have decided are our God-given right to drive," says John Paul Cameron, an Oregon winemaker who's a founding member of the Deep Roots Coalition. 

Writing in the notoriously opinionated Anderson Valley Advertiser, Will  Parrish reminds us that our wine industry is highly concentrated:


An overwhelming majority of grapes are purchased and made into wine by a mere seven corporations.

Here's more about that from a New York Times overview of our wine industry:

Some California wineries are huge. The E. & J. Gallo winery, for example, the largest in the world, produces 75 million cases a year, or one in every four bottles sold in America. The second largest is Constellation Wines U.S., part of Constellations Brands, the world’s largest wine company. Constellation’s United States properties, which include Robert Mondavi, Franciscan and Simi, produce about 50 million cases a year. The Wine Group, which includes Franzia, Glen Ellen and Concannon, makes 25 million cases, and Bronco, the parent of Charles Shaw – better known as “Two Buck Chuck” – produces 9 million cases annually.

The 25 largest California wineries produce 90 percent of the state’s wine...

(It's worth noting that only 3 of the 123 winery brands listed in The Map below of organic/biodynamic wineries is owned by one of these seven companies.)

Isn't it time for a better understanding of California's water supply and the largest water users in our wine industry?

I know there are stories of improving water use out there from the top corporations - but so far most of the stories I've heard are about greening the winemaking side of their operations (which is laudable but not the whole story) - not the grape growing.

How is this sustainable?

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