How California’s Wine Industry Is Hurting the Environment

Wine has been a popular beverage for thousands of years, and California is particularly famous for its fermented vintages, produced up and down the state, with Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties being particularly famous for their wines. However, there’s a hidden secret behind your glass of pinot, chardonnay or merlot: The wine industry often comes with considerable environmental costs. Maintaining a vineyard can be rough on the environment, depending on where grapes are grown and how they’re handled, and oddly enough, prestigious wines are among the worst violators, even though they come from some of California’s most environmentally conscious regions.

Researchers were curious about the effects of winegrowing on the environment, and they just released a comprehensive study examining the lifecycle footprint of wines in Napa and Lodi — you might have heard of the first, but if you’re scratching your head about the second, don’t worry. It is indeed a “lesser” wine producer in the sense that it doesn’t carry as much name recognition as Napa, but as it turns out, if you care about the environment, you might want to start picking up vintages produced in Lodi instead.

Before delving into the specifics of the study, it’s helpful to know that the wine industry has been targeted with concerns over environmental practices for decades. In 2005, wines made in the Central Valley were actually cited for air quality violations, on the grounds that they contributed to smog, particularly during peak production periods. Authorities ordered winemakers to install filtration systems to trap ethanol emitted during fermentation to remove the volatile organic compound from the atmosphere, subjecting wineries to the same regulations placed on industrial facilities.

So-called timber to vineyard or forest to vineyard conversions have also become extremely controversial. As wine country expands, so does the pressure on the surrounding environment, with more limited options for development opportunities. Consequently, some vineyards are petitioning to clear forest and replant the land with grapes. This practice harms biodiversity, contributes to habitat fragmentation, and creates monoculture where forests with a rich assortment of plants and animals used to be. Moreover, many vineyards don’t use cover crops and other tactics designed to fix nitrogen, prevent erosion, and improve soil conditions, which hurts the surrounding environment as well.

When vineyards allow erosion to occur on site, it typically ends up in surrounding watersheds. Precious topsoil makes its way out to the ocean, and along the way, it chokes out native plants and animals in the river. Moreover, the loss of topsoil and nutrients forces vineyards to apply fertilizers, and in the case of wines that aren’t produced organically, that typically means heavy agricultural chemicals, which also run off into the water. Such pollution can make its way into groundwater, too, affecting humans and animals alike. While discharge from agricultural land is regulated in California, regulators can’t be everywhere at once, and their work is often reactive rather than proactive — they respond to incidents rather than working to help wineries prevent them.

Heavy water use can also be a concern. While grapes are a Mediterranean crop and can survive on minimal water — and in fact thrive on minimal water, as it concentrates the sweetness in the crop and produces better grapes — vineyards rely heavily on irrigation, and this can be a significant concern in drought-affected regions of the state. When vineyards are tapping into local rivers, it affects species like Coho salmon, which use them to spawn. As with discharge, it can be difficult to monitor water usage across the entire state, and when vineyards waste water, regulators may not be aware of it until someone actively reports the problem.

The recent study noted that 90 percent of wines in the United States are grown in California, making the state a huge contributor to the country’s wine industry — and also making carbon emissions from wine a huge concern. Researchers found that production efficiency varied considerably according to region, but also vintner practices. Wine production in some areas produces smaller carbon footprints by nature, but the issue of waste can be compounded by practices like hand-picking grapes or thinning vines to produce a sweeter, more concentrated crop (and one with a more limited production run, which drives the value of the wine up).

As consumers grow more concerned with environmental practices, the wine industry may find itself in the limelight for the wrong reasons. Vineyards that choose to be proactive about their impact on the environment could be at the forefront of change, and eventually, consumers may be willing to pay a premium for more ethical grapes, which could be a powerful incentive for others to follow suit.

Photo credit: stacibeck

25 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago

noted

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Lorraine Andersen

Not surprising. As soon as you change what nature there has you cause damage. There are very few places in this world anymore that are as nature intended them to be.

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Jana DiCarlo
Jana DiCarlo2 years ago

thx

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Jennifer Manzi
Jennifer Manzi2 years ago

tyfs

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Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Can human wants never interfere with our fragile nature?

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Miriam VOICEfortheVOICELE

Thanks so much for sharing!

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Gloria H.
Gloria H2 years ago

maybe the drought will put a crimp on land purchases for more vineyards.

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Kamia T.
Kamia T2 years ago

Please spare me. Whether we want to face it or not, people must earn a living, and growing ANYTHING other than the native plants that exist -- INCLUDING on that lawn next to your house, impacts the environment in some way. Just check out how massive fields of veggies, nut or fruit trees also change things.

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Molly D.
M. C2 years ago

Got fires already now in Napa Valley !

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