Wine. Our Best Friend, or Worst Enemy?
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.
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.
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.
To 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.
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 www.sonomacountygazette.com. 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 Ranch, and my professors at the SRJC.