The snow-covered Dunn Vineyards winery on Howell Mountain northeast of St. Helena in February 2023.
Courtesy of Randy Dunn

Water use still major concern, despite historic rainfall

ST. HELENA — While the recent atmospheric rivers may have brought some relief to drought-ridden California, a leading water expert explained why the months of deluge will not alleviate the larger groundwater depletion in the state.

The 2023 Napa RISE Climate and Wine Symposium, hosted by the nonprofit Napa Green, kicked off Wednesday. Six days of events will take place during April at Charles Krug Winery with a series of discussions from environmental leaders and industry experts and professionals to discuss the sustainability efforts in Napa Valley.

Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and global futures professor at Arizona State University and former senior water scientist at NASA’s jet propulsion lab, spoke about California’s groundwater use and warned wine industry representatives in attendance that just because the state looks to be moving out of drought territory, groundwater conservation should still be a priority.

Famiglietti develops computer models and uses satellites to track the changes of freshwater availability on the planet. He has focused his decades of research on groundwater depletion.

Right now, he said Napa Valley is doing “quite well.” But he warned that the wet period is “only temporary,” and wet periods in California are almost always followed by long dry periods, which lead to water scarcity.

“It’s the fact that we use more water than we have available on an annual renewable basis,” said Famiglietti.

A key to solving this problem, he said, is finding solutions to increase water storage in surface water reservoirs like rivers and lakes, and aquifer recharge, which is a natural or manmade process of replenishing groundwater.

While Famiglietti said he hopes the state-mandated plans will lead California toward a path of overall water sustainability, he said he is hopeful that the industry will also work to find innovative ways to reduce groundwater use. Napa County’s 20-year plan to manage the local subbasin that sustains homes, the environment and Napa’s famed wineries and vineyards was approved in January.

“I look to industry because they can act independently,” he said. “Wineries are intergenerational. Groundwater is intergenerational. That’s a mutual interest right there.”

Earlier in the morning, British wine writer and Master of Wine Jancis Robinson gave stressed the importance of sustainable industry practices, not just for environmental and economical reasons, but also as a path to opening up the world of wine to younger consumers, who tend to be environmentally conscious.

Robinson noted that current packaging, production and transportation of glass bottles account for 40% of winery carbon emissions, and offered ideas for the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, by opting to use sustainable and lighter-weight bottles and packaging to ship inventory.

“It really is high time that we break the connection between heavy glass and wine quality, which we know is completely spurious — there is absolutely no connection between heavy glass and wine quality,” she said.

She noted that Napa wineries have a great opportunity to share this information.

“In Napa, you have a brilliant opportunity to speak to consumers — and quite well-heeled consumers at that — who might be the ones who might be tempted to be buying the heavy bottles in your tasting rooms,” Robinson said. “You have thousands of influencers, opinion-formers coming into the valley every year.”

Representatives from many other wineries spoke about their efforts to increase sustainability at their respective wineries, and about successful strategies they have implemented. Representatives included Peter Mondavi of Charles Krug, Remi Cohen and Stacey Ellis from Domaine Carneros, Emily Kern of Treasury Wine Estates, Erica Löfving formerly of Vintage Wine Estates, Matt Crafton of Chateau Montelena Winery, and Jason Moulton of Whitehall Lane Winery.

Napa Green Executive Director Anna Brittain said her group is doing this “because of just how truly dedicated we are to accelerating sustainability of climate action in the wine industry.”

“What we do here gets noticed and inspires broader global change, and the onus is on us to take advantage of that,” she said.

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.​

- Susan Boswell, Chateau Boswell Winery