A drip irrigation line at a vineyard in Sonoma County. Winegrowers are looking to reduce their water use in the face of ongoing drought.

Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

If the California wine industry wants to survive, it must use less water

On Tuesday I moderated a panel at Napa Thrives, a wine-industry conference focused on climate change. The subject of my panel was one that’s been on many Californians’ minds lately: water.

Notwithstanding the 2 inches of rain the North Bay got last weekend, we are still in a severe drought. A lack of water affects all of our lives here; California just ordered cities including San Francisco to stop pumping water from rivers and creeks. But it presents existential questions for California agriculture, including wine, as climate change intensifies our state’s drought cycle. If wine is to have a future here, it has to figure out how to reduce its water consumption.

None of this is news. But the conversation during Tuesday’s panel — especially some context provided by panelist Peter Gleick, a leading climate scientist who studies water at Oakland’s Pacific Institute — helped me see the situation in a new light.

The most shocking figure, to me, that Gleick shared was that 80% of California’s water goes to agriculture. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising given how much of the country’s food and drink we produce here. But it underscores the fact that water issues have to be handled on an industry-wide basis, not simply by asking laypeople to stop watering their lawns. 

Vineyards gulp a lot of water, but the wine production process uses considerable amounts at other stages too, largely to clean the production facility. Compared with other forms of beverage production, winemaking does not look very water-efficient: Coca-Cola used 1.84 liters of water for every liter of Coke produced in 2020, while wineries use about 7 to 16 liters of water per liter of wine, according to the journal Water Science & Technology.

Gleick reminded us that we have three options when it comes to climate change: mitigation (trying to lessen the effects of climate change), adaptation (changing our behavior to accommodate the changing climate) and suffering (exactly what it sounds like). When it comes to wine, the “suffering” scenario might entail producing lower-quality wine or making less of it — which, for a $40 billion statewide industry, matters.

We’re already seeing some of these effects. Last year’s crop was severely diminished, volume-wise, by the drought, which essentially weakens grapevines and causes them to yield fewer grapes. Gleick described the situation as “peak water”: We’re reaching the limit of what we can do with the amount of water we currently have.

The narrative about these types of climate-change effects tends to focus on our collective helplessness — and indeed, no winemaker could have caused the sky to rain more last year. But that sentiment obscures the opportunity that human beings have to mitigate the situation.

“We can grow more grapes with less water,” Gleick said. 

The question is: How? For one thing, grape farmers should be investing in widely available technologies that allow them to precisely monitor their soil moisture on a micro-level, so that they can irrigate only in the spots that absolutely need water, rather than watering an entire vineyard indiscriminately. 

Recycled wastewater, Gleick suggested, will also be key to the solution. Many larger estate wineries in the Bay Area already have wastewater treatment plants onsite, and others have built pipelines to municipal facilities that provide recycled water. Another panelist, Nathalie Jure, the director of viticulture at Opus One, spoke about her company’s use of recycled wastewater. To the extent that there’s a negative perception associated with the idea of this reused runoff, it may be important that high-profile, reputable wineries like Opus One speak publicly about their embrace of it.

Additional technologies are becoming available that can help. We heard on the panel from Alex Farren, who runs a company called BlueMorph that uses UV light to sanitize winery tanks, replacing the standard process of cleaning with caustic chemicals and lots of water. Most wine drinkers probably aren’t attuned to the details of winery sanitation, but eliminating excessive water use at every stage of the production process counts.

The good news: Wine is doing better than many other forms of agriculture. Of all the water used by California agriculture, wine accounts for only about 3%, Gleick said. But there’s still a long way to go.
 
The Napa Thrives conference will continue with five more events throughout June, and Thursday’s program, focused on energy efficiency, is moderated by former Chronicle newsletter editor Taylor Kate Brown.

I hope events like these can continue to catalyze meaningful action in the wine industry and in all of our lives. In the meantime, please, everyone, stop watering your lawns!

Making the commitment to third party certification takes time and effort, but it is worth it to demonstrate our commitment to the community and to protect our watershed, our land and the air we breathe.​

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Have you been to Napa Green Certified @boeschenvineyards yet?
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Team Green outing today at the stunning @boeschenvineyards as we celebrate big things that we can’t wait to share with you! 🌿
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One of the main resistances to phasing out glyphosate is increased labor and equipment costs. However, the costs of herbicides and fertilizers have risen dramatically, so increased labor demands can be offset by reduced supply chain purchases. 

In addition, leaders like Grgich Hills Estate have shown that regenerative organic farming can be cost-effective. According to an analysis by Brotemarkle Davis & Co. LLP accounting firm, the average annual per acre cost of vineyard management in the Napa Valley is $14,800, with $3,800 in depreciation. At Grgich, they spend $11,000 per acre, with only $1,300 in depreciation due to the longer life of their vineyards. 

Learn from regional leaders about the practical costs, benefits, and ROI of herbicide-free, organic, and regenerative vineyard management.

Confirmed Speakers:
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• Phil Coturri, Enterprise Vineyard Management & Winery Sixteen 600
• Brad Kurtz, Gloria Ferrer
• Brenae Royal, St. Supery
• Rebekah Wineburg, Quintessa

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“Storytelling is key… and sustainability is the most important topic in wine.”

Thank you @elinmccoy for an incredible and insightful conversation with @napagreen members about the stories most likely to capture journalists attention.
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Thank you to all who attended our Future of Water Workshop yesterday at Napa Green Certified @silveroakcellars! 

Stay tuned for more from our luminary speakers @mimicasteel, @todmostero, @petergleick & our own @abrittain.
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Join us for a special roundtable workshop with award-winning journalist Elin McCoy, global wine critic for Bloomberg News and US editor for the podcast The Wine Conversation, with listeners in 95 countries. 

Elin will sit down with a small group of Napa Green members (max 25 guests) and share her insights on the types of stories and pitches most likely to engage the media. In particular, she’ll focus on stories related to sustainable winegrowing, climate action, and social equity. 

Elin will speak and answer questions for about an hour. Then we’ll break into small groups to develop a story pitch, and come back together to present and get Elin’s feedback and input. This is a rare opportunity to get ideas and inspiration from a leading wine journalist. Register at the link in our profile.
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Climate Action & Regenerative Agriculture! Our sixth pillar that encompasses all that we do at Napa Green. 🌼
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Hear from Winery Program Manager @love.dream.breathe about Energy Efficiency & Savings, one of our pillars of sustainable winegrowing leadership
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We want to sincerely thank everyone who donated either space, time or proceeds of bottles/food sold to Napa Green during Earth Month! We are a small non-profit that greatly relies on donations of these kinds and we’re so grateful for our supportive community. 

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Social Justice, Equity & Inclusion. Perhaps our most important pillar of our six pillars of sustainability leadership. 

Thank you for the beautiful description @growresiliently!
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Register now at the link in our profile! 💦

May 23, 2024
Silver Oak Winery, Oakville
9:00 am - 12:15 pm

One of the most critical agricultural concerns with our changing climate, and more frequent & intense weather extremes, is precipitation and water availability. The good news is opportunities abound to optimize irrigation efficiency, and implement regenerative practices that improve soil health, water infiltration, and retention. 

Join us for The Future of Water, with highlights including a keynote from Peter Gleick, one of the world’s leading water experts, and Mimi Casteel, not only a viticulturist and winemaker, but also a forest ecologist with a vision for water resiliency.
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Join us for The Future of Water Workshop, to explore our water future, with highlights including a keynote from Peter Gleick, one of the world’s leading water experts (all guests will receive a copy of Peter’s most recent book, The Three Ages of Water) and Mimi Casteel, not only a viticulturist and winemaker, but also a forest ecologist with a vision for water resiliency.

Wine grape quality is closely tied to the right amount of water, at the right time. One of the most critical agricultural concerns with our changing climate, and more frequent & intense weather extremes, is precipitation and water availability. We’ve swung from historic drought to atmospheric rivers. Our community has huge swaths of unmanaged, unhealthy forests full of non-natives and overrun by firs, amplifying fire risk and undermining one of the most critical systems for groundwater recharge.

The good news is opportunities abound to optimize irrigation efficiency, and implement regenerative practices that improve soil health, water infiltration, and retention. A watershed coalition has also formed in Napa County to pilot and model creek & forest restoration for localized water resiliency and climate cooling. 

Come learn more on Thursday, May 23rd at 9:00am at @silveroakcellars.
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Sustainably sourced ingredients with Chef Sarah Heller 🌱 Purchase your tax deductible ticket to our Opus One x Napa Green dinner at the link in our profile!
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You’re invited.. 

Full details may be found at the link in our profile. Cheers!
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As we wrap up an amazing Earth Month, we want to thank you all for the support & for coming to see us at our events! 

Let’s keep the momentum going and remember that Earth Day is Every Day! 🌎
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