Wine. Red, white, pink, or sparkling, it’s produced all over the world in vineyards ranging from those maintained by vast corporations to small family farms. It’s been a mainstay of human society for centuries, with grape wines made by the Greeks and Romans and other fruits used in wine production in Ancient China, numerous African societies and the New World.
How much do you know about how wine is made, and what lurks behind the wine industry? In California, as in other wine-producing regions, the industry may be an economic boon, bringing billions of dollars into state coffers, but it comes with a dark side as well — wine has serious environmental impacts that often get short shrift in discussions about wine and all that goes with it. Go into the grocery store and flip open the wine list better prepared next time with some facts about California’s wine industry that may surprise you.
1. California is losing valuable forests and farmlands to vineyards
California’s farmland is under increasing pressure, thanks to the state’s growing population. Development is eating up formerly arable land as housing expands, particularly in wine country, where many people want to invest in real estate thanks to the high values in the region. Since living next to a vineyard or even owning a small winery (managed by skilled personnel) is a status symbol, development in wine country is proceeding apace despite the economy.
As vines become the state’s premiere crop, farmland is giving way to vineyards in costly and time-consuming conversions, making less land available for food production. That’s bad news for California in terms of food security, but it also means that the state is looking at an epidemic of monocropping, with vines as far as the eye can see. Not only that, but taking over existing farmland isn’t enough for the wine industry, which is also marching on the state’s stunning forests in so-called “forest-to-vineyard conversions.”
If that sounds grim, it should. Earlier in June, precious forestland in Sonoma County was saved from being felled to make way for vineyards, but that won’t be the end of it. It, like other California counties with climates and terroir suitable for making wine, is undergoing a blizzard of new vineyard applications, raising the prospect of more such conversions and an eventual glut of grapes that could send prices bottoming out.
2. Water: A scarce commodity
Grapes get thirsty, even on the hardy stock most California grapes are grafted on to so they’ll survive as robust commercial cultivars. Throughout the dry season, grapes need a lot of watering to produce lots of healthy, juicy fruit that will yield the best results in the fall when it’s time for the annual crush. Not only that, but in the fall and winter, lots of water (50 gallons per minute applied per acre during peak periods) is utilized to manage freezes, a huge potential risk for the surprisingly fragile and extremely expensive crop.
Northern California, where some of the state’s finest wines are produced, is currently in the grip of a severe drought, with an extremely dry forecast. This is nothing new for the state, which has been struggling with water and how to use it since it was first settled by Europeans. Some strenuously protest the heavy diversion of water to grapes, arguing that this takes away from other crops, homes and, of course, the natural environment. California’s rivers are running dry thanks to the amount of water drawn off for irrigation, and the wine industry is a big contributor.
For Coho salmon and other fish that rely on waterways like the Russian River, the continuous heavy draw creates serious environmental pressures, as they can’t survive in the lowered water. Given that many of these fish populations are only just recovering from overfishing and poor management, this is not a good sign for ecological balance in California.
3. Waste, pollution and more
California wineries don’t have the greatest record when it comes to pollution. Like many producers historically, they once dumped waste material directly into rivers, despite the fact that it caused nutrient blooms which contributed to the overgrowth of algae and other problems. Today, their activities are more tightly controlled, but they certainly aren’t saints, either.
Wineries continue to contribute to nutrient pollution through agricultural runoff and poorly managed vineyard waste, including so-called “grape waste,” what remains after grapes are pressed and fermented. While there is some use for this industry byproduct, when it’s not controlled properly, it can spill over into the natural environment, choking rivers and streams. Wineries have also been criticized for failing to clean up garbage along waterways near their premises.
Furthermore, the production of wine adds to smog, creating a serious air quality problem in some regions. In combination with emissions produced by cars, factories and other sources, winery smog emissions can cloud the air extremely badly during air inversions, when smog presses against the earth instead of rising and dispersing. Sonoma, among other California counties, has declared a growing number of Spare the Air Days in recent years, illustrating that the smog problem is getting worse. While wineries aren’t the only culprits, they’re playing their part.
4. Labor problems
This year, wineries are having trouble finding workers, which could be a really critical problem during the crush, when a massive workforce is needed to quickly harvest grapes at peak. At crush, a few days can make a big difference, and wineries need to be able to quickly muster laborers; if they miss the window, it will wreak havoc on the production schedule and could end in the loss of part of the crop.
But this is only a symptom, not the actual problem. As in other states, California has been looking at harsher crackdowns on immigrants, with a tightening up of regulation and inspections that keeps many workers out of the fields because wineries, like the rest of the agricultural industry, rely heavily on undocumented labor. Fewer laborers are willing to cross the border, and even fewer are showing up for agricultural work due to fear of deportation, leaving wineries with big crops and no one to pick them.
Workers are also fighting for their rights, a radical shift from their historical role as disposable field hands. Instead of accepting exploitation, abuse and safety violations in the fields, vineyard workers along with other farmworkers are advocating for themselves, fighting for enforcement of basic labor laws and mustering support from outside organizations. Faced with pressure to treat workers fairly, wineries are learning that even the glitter of their industry won’t protect them from justifiably angry workers and consumers concerned about human rights.
California is far from the only wine-producing region with serious environmental and human rights issues: time for the industry to clean up its act, so you can crack open a glass of pinot without reservations!
Photo credit: Viņa Caliterra