Free Compliments of our Advertisers
Sonoma County Gazette
Free range hens not only keep pests off the vines, they till their nutrient rich manure into the soil.
Free range hens not only keep pests off the vines, they till their nutrient rich manure into the soil.

Wine. Our Best Friend, or Worst Enemy?

Mar 27, 2018


By Aleta Parseghian

When discussing the conservation of natural resources within Sonoma County, it’s hard to avoid the elephant in the room. That elephant is our prosperous wine industry. Despite how much wine benefits our local economy, we cannot ignore its negative environmental impacts to our unique and fragile ecosystem.

There are over 60,000 acres of wine grapes in Sonoma County, of which only 1,400 are grown organically. With organic farming becoming a trend locally and nationwide (80% of all milk from Sonoma County is now organic), the wine industry is slow to follow suit and meet market demands, in spite of Sonoma County Winegrowers commitment to making Sonoma County a 100% sustainable winegrowing region.

Hilltop vineyard vista

These vineyards also use 80% of all water within the county. Yet, with a record drought still a looming threat, winegrowers were virtually untouched by the legislative water restrictions. Gov. Jerry Brown excuses this decision as being an economic one, saying that he did not want to damage the wine industry in such a way that the unemployment rate skyrocketed.

It is time that we start asking the wine industry to take accountability for the land that they are exploiting. From spraying cocktails of pesticides; fungicides; rodenticides; and synthetic fertilizers onto the land and into our water, to depleting soil nutrients through monocrop agriculture, to fragmenting wildlife habitat and preventing natural migrations, the wine industry is harming all the best things about this land.

But growing wine grapes doesn’t have to be detrimental to the environment. As with everything, there is a sustainable, biodynamic, and holistic approach that can not only generate equivalent yields, but also make better quality wines.

Planting cover crops would recharge soil nutrients, attract beneficial insects, and retain water in the soil.

The best way to restructure the way grapes are grown is to begin turning vineyards into a permaculture ecosystem that benefit the soil and works with nature instead of competing against it. Planting cover crops recharge soil nutrients, attracts beneficial insects, and retains water in the soil. Allowing these crops to naturally decompose, free of chemicals, creates healthier soil for the vines to thrive from without the need for toxic additives.

pigs and small sheep (Old English), provide nitrogen-rich manureTo address the issue of pests eating the leaves and grapes, many organic winegrowers implement the use of small livestock. Chickens, for example, are fantastic foragers and thrive off a diet of plants and bugs. They also provide nitrogen-rich manure and manually till the plant debris and manure into the soil. Other animals, like pigs and small sheep (Old English), can achieve the same goal. None of these animals are tall enough to reach the grapes, so they can graze in vineyards year-round.

The use of fungicides is possibly the most expensive aspect of winegrowing because these chemicals need to be reapplied several times throughout the growing season. They are also some of the most detrimental to the soil. Soil needs fungus (mycelium) to break down raw materials for decomposition, which will, in turn, feed the grape vines, and to keep harmful bacteria at bay. Without fungus in the soil, bacteria can take over and damage the vines, which in turn creates the need for topical fungicides. There are many options for organic, natural fungus inhibitors like Sonata and Seranade Biofungicide, stylet mineral oil, chamomile spray, or 501 Quartz spray. They may be more expensive and need to be applied more frequently than conventional means, but the potential increased value of organic wines could offset those cost.

The final, and arguably biggest issue on the table is water use. Vineyards use exorbitant amounts of water to force maximum grape yields. But how much of that water is actually being absorbed by the vines? We’ve all seen massive plots of vineyards being watered by sprinklers mid-day in 90˚ weather. That is the worst way to water any crop, let alone a crop that has barren, exposed soil with little shade or cover. A couple simple steps to conserve water would be to only drip irrigate, and set a timer to water when the sun is off the vines to reduce evaporation. Dry farming is not only feasible in our region, but it also increases health of the vines and flavor complexities of the wine thanks to their impressively deep tap roots that can access water and nutrients far below the surface. Vineyards in California were exclusively dry farmed until the 1970’s when irrigation was introduced. A return to such practices would benefit our county both environmentally and economically.

My goal in writing this article is not to demonize the wine industry or the people who profit from it. My only motivation is to, in any small way, help improve the ecosystems and habitats within Sonoma County. I believe that if we want to exploit the land, we must also nurture it. I ask that winegrowers in Sonoma County take a good hard look at their farming practices and challenge themselves to do better. No matter what our profession, we should all, first and foremost, be stewards to the land.

dry-farmed vineyard after bud break

Author’s Note: I am aware that these statements may seem controversial to many, so please understand that all information in this article has been thoroughly researched. The full article with cited sources can be found at In addition to my research, I had the privilege of speaking with some very knowledgeable agriculture professionals. I’d like to give special thanks to Jason Jardine of Hanzell Winery, Aaron Gilliam of Monkey Ranchand my professors at the SRJC.

Works Cited

  1. 2016 Sonoma County Crop Report,
  2. McGourty, Glenn T. Fighting Disease Organically, Oct 2006, Wines & Vines Magazine
  3. Sonoma Wine Facts,
  4. Wallace, Hannah. The Benefits of Dry-Farming Wine – For the Palate and the Planet. Dec 12, 2015
  5. Jason Jardine of Hanzell Winery, a sustainable, eco-conscious winery in Sonoma.
  6. Aaron Gilliam of Monkey Ranch, a biodynamic sheep and chicken farm in Petaluma.


Apr 9, 2018
Submitted by email 4/3/18 Hi Aleta, I wanted to thank you for your well written and researched article on grape cultivation. I've been a local anti-pesticide advocate in Sonoma County for several years (focusing mainly on getting pesticides out of schools and parks) and have started to slowly educate myself on the status quo in grape growing. I went to Pam Strayers talk in Sebastopol a couple weeks ago (perhaps you were there?) and was very glad to see your well timed article in the Gazette. I've been working on Sonoma County Conservation Action's Toxic Free Future campaign and could see some of those efforts focused on grape growing/worker's rights in the future. I know there are a handful of other nonprofits that would also be interested in working on this issue. Keep me in mind if you decide to pursue this work further. Thanks again! Megan Kaun
- Aleta Parseghian
Apr 9, 2018
Submitted by email 3/31/18: The article written by Aleta includes the sentence..."despite how much the wine industry benefits our local economy..." My question is exactly does the wine industry benefit our economy? Does it pay for our roads that tourists drive and bike all over to taste test? Does it pay for housing for the multitude of service workers behind the scenes...out in the vineyards working under sometimes deplorable conditions? Does it pay for our children's education? Does it pay to keep our waters clean and clear? As Aleta says, let's address the elephant in the room. It's looming large. Our county is forever changed. It's lost so much of its charm with the rape of the land, outrageous water usage, continued building of wineries, and more and more venues to 'taste' and be entertained. I appreciate your article Aleta, thank you. ...and I personally, don't mind demonizing the industry. It's theirs to own. Jude Mariah
- Aleta Parseghian
Apr 9, 2018
Submitted by email 3/31/18: Editor: Thank you for the excellent, balanced April cover story: “Wine Our Best friend or Worst Enemy?” When the Sonoma County Winegrowers buy full-page ads in local papers headlined "Love the land and the land loves you", touting their goal of 100% sustainability, one has to wonder. If they love the land so much, why are they using so many harmful chemicals? Sustainability? Sounds like fake news to me. In 2015, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate a “probable carcinogen.” That same year, just over 46 tons—of glyphosate were applied to Sonoma County vineyards. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup; the most widely sold weed-killer in the world. In 2016, a consensus statement by a group of scientists blamed the heavy and rising usage of glyphosate on endocrine disruption, birth defects, kidney and liver damage, and gastrointestinal health issues. They also found that Monsanto’s “allowable daily intakes” in the US and EU were based on outdated science. Meanwhile, sales of organic wine are growing, significantly faster than sales of non-organic wine, with each acre yielding about $1500 more for the grapes. If our local wine industry truly wants to be sustainable they will consider your author’s recommendations to move toward biodynamic or organic/pesticide free farming for the health and welfare of everyone, not just business profits. Jane Colman
- Aleta Parseghian
Apr 9, 2018
RE Jude Mariah: Hi Jude, Thank you for your input on my article in the April issue. I understand your skepticism surrounding the wine industry and the apparent damage it does to our environment. But we also must give credit where it is due. Wine has put Sonoma County on the map as a tourist destination, and whether you think that’s good or bad, it does generate revenue. All those tourists are paying taxes while they’re here, which does contribute towards road improvement, public services, human services, education, and environmental advancements. These tourists are also patronizing other businesses like restaurants, hotels, and shops, most of which are owned by locals and all of whom employ locals. The wine industry itself directly employs 7,830 people in Sonoma County, who make an average of $16.34/hour. There are many ways that we can criticize the wine industry, and many ways in which they can improve their business and farming practices, but to say that they offer no benefit to Sonoma County at all would be inaccurate. My hope is that we can find a balance. Ideally, our place on the map as a wine destination would remain, but in such a way that is environmentally sustainable and not so financially top heavy. Encouraging more winegrowers to become more biodynamic, and supporting the ones who already are, would be the first step in moving the process along towards a more sustainable future. Thank you again for your response. Aleta Parseghian
- Aleta Parseghian
Apr 9, 2018
Submitted by email 3/31/18: Dear Vesta, Padi just forwarded the front page article of this month's Gazette. I am surprised and delighted to hear this healthy and balanced perspective, so notably lacking in public forum and local politics. My compliments to the author. Thank you for publishing this!! Sincerely, Laura Morgan
- Aleta Parseghian

Login to Make a Comment

Please support our sponsors:

Listen to KRCB FM on Our FREE Mobile App

Tune into KRCB any time - CLICK HERE to download the Live Streaming app

REFB donations
Save Local Newspapers
Fine Tree Care - Sonoma County Tree Services

Visit Fine Tree Care WEBSITE for a List of our SERVICES - Testimonials and to request a FREE Estimate

LOCAL GUIDE to Cannabis Dispensaries and Delivery Services, Sonoma County & Beyond.

LOCAL GUIDE to Cannabis Dispensaries and Delivery Services, Sonoma County & Beyond.All dispensaries have verified their information.

Flip through the pages of the print edition of the 2020 Sonoma County Gardeners Resource Guide

Your 2020 GUIDE to support locally-owned garden businesses and natural landscaping practices.

Sonoma County Bicycle Shops and Groups

Sonoma County Bike Shops and Groups. Find LOCALLY-OWNED Bicycle Shops for NEW, Used and Rental Bicycles as well as REPAIR. Look for a bike-riding group that suits your needs and style.