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Sustainable Viticulture?

In the fall of 2008, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources devoted an entire 88-page edition of its quarterly magazine, California Agriculture, to profiling a trend known as “sustainable viticulture.” Broadly speaking, the “social movement” the magazine's editors were pointing to consists of efforts by wineries and vineyards to mitigate their impact on the natural environment ranging from reduced use of certain toxic chemicals to conserving water to not chopping down as many trees and replacing them with vines.

In the minds of California Agriculture's editors, these efforts add up to an unmitigated success. “Since the early 1990s, the California winegrape industry has made an unprecedented effort to promote sustainable practices, those that prioritize environmental protection, economic viability and social equity,” they enthuse in a lead-in to the body of the issue. In an article titled “Agro-Environmental Partnerships Facilitate Sustainable Wine-Grape Production and Assessment” by Dr. Janet C. Broome of UC Cooperative Extension and Keith Douglass Warner of the Environmental Studies Institute at Santa Clara University write that the California wine industry has “develop[ed] what may be the most comprehensive sustainability initiative of any U.S. commodity.”

Perhaps the strongest overview of winegrape growers' progress toward being more eco-friendly practices comes by way of the head honcho of the California Association of Winegrape Growers at the time, Karen Ross (who now heads the California Department of Agriculture), and UC Davis academic Deborah Golino, who brag in a joint article that, “By 2006, statewide reports show that total pesticides applied to winegrapes had declined 50 percent per acre planted since 1994. According to their self-assessments, growers reduced sedimentation and pesticide pollution of water, managed dust and improved air quality, and reduced herbicide and fungicide use.”

Other articles feature information on the industry's efforts to practice pest-control methods that don't rely entirely on toxic chemicals. Then there's an article centered around the great news that almost 8,000 vineyard acres in California are certified organic, a robust 1.5 percent of the total of roughly 520,000 cultivated grape acres across state.

You can check it out here.

It's what the publication leaves out that is most revealing. It features no attempt to quantify the harm the wine industry has caused. Rather, while tacitly acknowledging that the wine industry is causing widespread harm, it merely focuses on the industry's attempts to reform its worst excesses and presents that as the whole of the story. It features nothing about the insane amounts of water drawn out to protect new bud growth on vines from frost in vineyards that never should have been planted in such frost-prone areas in the first place. Nowhere does it attempt to quantify the vast amount of irrigated water the industry uses. Nowhere does it attempt to document the gut-wrenching health impacts on humans and wildlife of drenching California vineyards with literally tens of millions of pounds of pesticides annually. Nothing about resculpting or removing entire hilltops and mountaintops to plant grapes. Nothing about the prevalence of bullfrogs, an extremely harmful invasive predator that thrive on the presence of stillwater habitat such as ponds and reservoirs, and which prey on native amphibians, reptiles, fish, and any food item small enough to fill their mouths. And the list goes on.

My critique here isn't aimed at California Agriculture per se, although the University of California system in general, and UC Davis in particular have been quite crucial to the development of the modern wine industry. Rather, the issue of California Agriculture in question is important because it provides the most comprehensive overview of what the wine industry is doing to mitigate the environmental damage it causes. If you want to understand how “green” the wine industry actually is, this is the piece of literature you want to check out, being that it makes the most exhaustive case in favor of sustainable grape growers.

I bring all of this up partly because since I began publishing articles critical of the wine industry in the Anderson Valley Advertiser last year, on any given week I have usually heard from at least one winegrape grower who considers my treatment of the high-end alcohol industry to be unfair, or at least one wine consumer who thinks I'm being too general in my criticism of the business. The most frequent charge is that I don't often enough qualitatively differentiate between the small proprietor-owned wine labels, including those that practice various forms of eco-friendly farming, and the mega-vintibusinesses like Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, and Constellation Brands – which it's widely acknowledged have caused their share of severe environmental and social harm, a fact that even occasionally has surfaced over the years in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

I don't mind one bit getting the criticism. In fact, truth be told, I'd be much more worried if I wasn't receiving any. I learned some years ago that one of the most faithful reflections of one's success in challenging concentrations of economic and political power is the level of reactionary criticism one receives from those same elements or their various proxies. Besides which, the response to my series of articles on the wine industry has generally been quite favorable, which has helped fuel me to keep going, whereas I might have devoted far more of the attention I've given to the wine industry to other topics.

In any case, most of the criticism I've personally received has not been from representatives of the major powers in the wine industry, who generally opt to ignore the existence of the AVA whilst in a public setting, although I have it on unchallengeable authority that they sometimes complain intensely about the AVA while in closed company, and lately about my work in particular. Rather, most of the criticism has been from small biodynamic grape growers, dry farmers, and consumers of small proprietor-owned wineries.

While I'm sympathetic to many of these folks, I find the charge that I am too sweeping in my generalizations about the wine industry to be misplaced. I first addressed this subject in a post to the online magazine edited by Dave Smith of Mulligan Books, Ukiah Blog/Mendo Island Journal, a few months ago. It still stands as about the best answer I'm capable of giving.


In my work as an investigative journalist, I try to act as an interlocutor with current orthodoxy, expressing forbidden silences and demonstrating how the interests of rapacious power are served when certain things get omitted from public discourse. Soon after I moved to Mendocino County, I was struck by the silence attending Big Wine’s destruction of the regional ecology and social fabric.

Here we have an industry that — to name just one of its impacts — converts every river it relies on to a collection of stagnant pools. If you want to kill off a river ecosystem and the wildlife that depend on it, a fantastic way to go about it is to do as Napa, Sonoma, southern Mendocino, and Lake counties have done: turn the land on the river banks and in the surrounding hills over to grape growers who are supplying into a global market for high-end booze, and who thus forego cultivating varieties well-adapted to their regions or practicing long-range pruning methods. Multiply the practices of these industrial vinters by hundreds of thousands of acres of grapes, and the result is a collection of dead and dying waterways that spans much of the North Bay and North Coast — the Navarro, Napa, Russian, and Gualala, and (to a somewhat lesser extent, perhaps) the Eel.

Most were mortally wounded by the timber industry to start with, it’s important to note, but the wine industry is in the process of finishing them off, or in some cases already has.

That ought to be a foremost concern of people who seek to localize the economies in these areas, by the way. The only people who have ever lived in a truly sustainable fashion in this region relied on the bounty of the rivers — “salmon, salmon, and salmon,” as some historical observers have characterized the Pomo economy. And the rivers remained a food commons for local people until quite recently. For instance, that’s one of the main ways a lot of folks in these parts made it through The Great Depression. Now that’s been stolen from us!

Over the years, some people have fought back — watershed and neighborhood groups in Sonoma and Napa counties, environmentalists, NGOs, the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Not only should more of Ecotopia’s professed environmentalists be joining in with the existing opposition, but doing so in a militant and uncompromising way.

Yet, most environmentalist circles ’round these parts have been mute on the subject of the wine industry’s destructiveness. About a year ago, a friend of mine brought up the possibility of taking on the wine industry at a gathering of Mendocino Environmental Center, and the only audible response he elicited was a man telling him that’s not something any of us should be worried about.

Now, from what I’ve observed, one reason for the collective silence surrounding the high-end booze sector is that many people here in Mendo perceive the business to be comprised mainly of, as you refer to them, small proprietor-owned wineries (not that you’re saying that). As a corrective to that mis-perception, I’ve focused consistently on the industry’s economic structure. Namely, most vineyard acreage is owned by people who don’t live in the area. An overwhelming majority of grapes are purchased and made into wine by a mere seven corporations. The money that’s inflated the grape bubble has accrued from big banks and pools of wealthy people’s money. The big boys ultimately call the shots and cream off almost all the profits. They’re the ones causing an overwhelming portion of the destruction.

Now, if I were to write a series exploring the horrible damage the corporate media has wrought on America’s political discourse, it wouldn’t be the case that I’m “painting all media with the same brush” just because I don’t specifically single out relatively marginal radio stations and newspapers for praise. If I were to write a series on the gut-wrenching economic impact of the US banking system, it doesn’t mean I’m “painting community credit unions with the same brush” as Citigroup and Bank of America, for instance.

Frankly, if you are part of an industry that’s characterized by large-scale destruction, it’s your own responsibility to distinguish yourself from the overarching destructive tendencies. In the case of the wine industry, some have — Frey Vineyards & Winery in Redwood Valley, for example. They didn’t need me to do it for them.

I sympathize with the little guys who are trying to make it in the wine industry. In the meantime, though, the industry as a whole is destroying a vast amount of the ecology of this region and, by extension, the ecological basis for the region to achieve economic sovereignty. If, in the process of trying to lance the pervasive silence surrounding these things, I’ve slightly understated the role that small-time, more eco-friendly grape farmers play in the regional wine biz (and if I’ve done so at all, it’s only very slightly), then I say so be it.


In the next three editions of the AVA, I'll be publishing back-to-back pieces profiling a series of destructive vineyard development projects currently underway in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. As the persistent omissions and cover-ups concerning these sorts of projects in publicatons ranging from California Agriculture to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat demonstrated, there's no other way you'll ever read about them if not in a newspaper like this one.


One Comment

  1. pam strayer June 26, 2011

    I agree that there are issues with the wine industry but since most of your objections are with LAND USE, I am surprised there is not more attention in your article to LAND USE authorities in Sonoma and Mendo. County regs on land use re agriculture could be the best way to make sure proper environmental reviews are followed. Of course, this is a HUGE topic in Napa where land use regulations govern everything about the ag preserve there.

    As far as water issues, I wish you would put the same level of attention on water use, dams, and population growth and the damming of the Russian River as the water source for 600,000 people south of you. As the SF Chronicle coverage of the newly issued Pacific Institute on Central Valley water and the drought of the late 2000s showed, population issues on water dwarf any use of water by ag – and within ag, the wine industry is one of the lesser water users. I know you are not in the Central Valley, but the issues are somewhat similar.

    Groundwater regulations need to be created so people can’t just go around poking straws everywhere. In Napa I have heard from growers in Rutherford that during recent years, there were times when the wells did not have water on the valley floor. They are massively overirrigating the grapes – reducing quality.

    As for Mendo, I would think that looking at population issues re water would be a good idea. Isn’t that what’s killing the rivers? You talk about frost protection but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the big ole dams. Isn’t it those dams that destroyed the rivers?

    Thanks for the coverage about PD’s omission of local coverage. Egads.

    Let’s hope you can up the ante with some original reporting on water as well as land use instead of finding trumped up specious stuff about a guy on a board who resigned. You’re at your best on showing people who are out of compliance with existing local ordinances – and thank you for that. The Goldman Sachs guy story was great.

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