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Big Wine Fails To Dry Farm During California’s Relentless Drought

By Shepherd Bliss

28 April, 2015

(Sonoma County, in the heart of California’s Redwood Empire): California Governor Jerry Brown spent this year’s Earth Day at the elite Iron Horse Winery in the Sebastopol countryside. It was a great photo opportunity and promotion for the winery. Iron Horse is known for donations to President Bill Clinton and other politicians, with whom it has cozy relationships, and from whom it receives favors, such as these visits. I operate a small berry and apple farm nearby and teach sustainable agriculture, mainly to college students.

“Hope Amid Drought” headlined the April 20 pro-wine industry daily Press Democrat’s (PD) report on this winery event of some 200 people. “Brown says innovation, efficiency will get state through water shortage,” the article notes. Iron Horse Vineyards CEO Joy Sterling “said the 300-acre winery…epitomized the environmental stewardship honored on Earth Day.” She spoke about their “love of the land.”

But wait. What about water usage, the theme of Gov. Brown’s talk? The previous day the PD published the commentary “Why We Don’t Dry Farm Grapes.” Its author? Iron Horse’s Laurence Sterling.

It’s hypocritical for Gov. Brown to mandate that the rest of us reduce water use by 25%, except for his friends in Big Ag and Big Wine. It’s called “green washing.” Or as we used to say, bluntly, on our Iowa family farms when we went out to clean the cute piglets, “hogwash.”

Five days later the PD published a letter that nailed both Gov. Brown and Mr. Sterling for this contradiction. Under the headline “Time for Sustainable Ag,” it was written by Sebastopol neighbor Donna Diehl. She reports, “Four of our neighbors had to drill new wells since the first of the year.” Nearby wells can go dry when Big Wine drills as deep as 1000 feet into the ground. Excessive pumping from shallow wells can also lead to neighbor’s wells pumping air, reports a Lake County wine maker.

“Let’s not wait until our groundwater is depleted to address the issue of the impact of viticulture on its depletion,” Ms. Diehl concludes.

“Mainly we are not judged by our farming method or our water usage. We are judged on how our wines taste,” alleges Mr. Sterling. He operates not on the basis of ethics but only economics--what is most profitable--regardless of environmental damage. This contrasts with Ms. Sterling’s claim about “environmental stewardship.

Actually, this food farmer does judge Iron Horse, Gov. Brown, Big Ag, and Big Wine for extensive water usage by a few, at the expense of the rest of us and the environment. Most Californians cannot afford expensive $300 wine bottles by wine barons such as “bad apple” Paul Hobbs, whereas all humans, mammals, and most life forms on Earth depend on water for survival.

“The fierce drought gripping the West — and the imminent prospect of rationing and steep water price increases in California — is sharpening the deep economic divide in this state,” reports the April 27 New York Times article “Drought Widens Economic Divide for Californians.’” It illustrates “parallel worlds in which wealthy communities guzzle water as poorer neighbors conserve by necessity.” That article focuses on Southern California. Sound familiar?

Big Wine is not a good neighbor willing to share common resources, like water, land, and air. Instead, they hoard them and get away with it, partly because of substantial donations to politicians.

Ethical alternatives to Iron Horse and other water guzzlers exist. For example, Emeritus Vineyards is near Iron Horse and dry farms, in the same soil, according to the PD’s April 26 “Debate Over Dry Farming” article.

Most of Sonoma County’s wine production is done by large corporations owned by investors who live outside the region. That wine is sold mainly outside the region, including to the expanding market in China. The water, wine, and profits tend to leave our local region.


One of the PD’s wine columnists, Dan Berger, fortunately wrote a tribute to dry farming in an April 6 article titled “Weaning Wine Off Water.” He quotes Frog’s Leap Winery owner John Williams, “We (in Napa) are drawing 1.2 billion gallons of water and putting it on vines that don’t really need it…The entire valley was dry-farmed for 100 years until 1976, when the first drip irrigation systems were installed.” All the Napa wines that won the historic 1976 Paris tastings, which put North Coast wines on the map, were dry farmed.

“Since we started using Biodynamic agriculture techniques, we have practically stopped irrigating,” reports Patricia Damery of Harms Vineyards and Lavender Fields in Napa County. “In the last four years of drought, we have irrigated grapes at most twice each year, and our yield has not decreased. Compost drastically increases the soil’s moisture-holding capacity. When growers push production and forget the environment, they start irrigating vines. It is time to stop. If grapes can’t grow in non-irrigated areas, they shouldn’t be planted there.”

Unfortunately, like the gold rush, the recent grape rush to the North Coast drew investors to plant where they should not have. Now they, and we locals, suffer the consequences.

“Wine Banter” columnist John Haggard of Sophies Cellars in the April Sonoma County Gazette notes that now “is an opportunity to re-assess the viability of dry farming.” Haggard reports that “dry farms tend to yield less fruit per acre,” but “the struggle to reach the water table creates character and quality.”

“Dry farming techniques can improve grape and wine quality,” according to the state-wide Community Alliance with Family Farmers website (www.caff.org.) “Many growers trade quantity for quality when dry farming.” CAFF provides a list of farms and vineyards that dry farm and engage in other environmentally helpful organic and sustainable practices.

Wine writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonne and Alice Feiring, also have written positively about dry farming. Part of the solution would be to label dry-farmed wines in order to support true water sustainability. It is illegal in some European countries to irrigate vineyards, which preserves quality.

Rules regulating the growing number of winery events in California’s North Coast are weak and seldom enforced. Regulators complain that they do not have the staff to enforce them, especially on weekends. Many European governments do a better job of regulating vineyards and wineries, according to a Lake County winery owner.


I have owned a small berry and apple farm in Sebastopol since l992. With the drought’s arrival, I stopped irrigating. My berries are not as big as they used to be, so I make less money, but my regular customers report that they taste better. Grapes, after all, are a berry.

During the last two-dozen years I have amended the soil by loading tons of mulch and compost on the berry berms and employed various permaculture and organic techniques. This helps keep the water in the ground and the weeds out. As my berries have grown, their roots dig deeper into the enriched soil and reach the water table. I only need to turn on hoses when it gets too hot and would fry the berries.

“Monocrop, regimented, industrial vineyards are a desert and environmental disaster for bees,” my beekeeper reports. “Grapes do not need bees for pollination. Most vineyards use lots of pesticides and herbicides, to which bees become addicted,” he added.

The beekeeper was referring to a study by Swedish scientists. “Bees are not repelled by pesticides and in fact may even prefer pesticide-coated crops,” an Associated Press article published in the April 23 San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere reports. So much for the pesticide-using Sterlings assertion that they epitomize “environmental stewardship.”

An increasing number of North Coast residents and businesses are calling for a moratorium on new vineyards and wineries and expansions of existing vineyards and wineries, especially as event centers. It is unfair to mandate people and other businesses to conserve water and allow Big Ag and Big Wine to consume as much as they want, for free. A four-county group has met in Lake and Sonoma Counties and will meet again in May in Napa County to discuss dealing with the excesses of the wine industry.

“I noted in my research that down in Paso Robles the premium wine growing area is running dry and the county supervisors in that region are putting a moratorium on all new wells while they ponder their next move,” writes one long-time researcher of the wine industry, Dana Smith. Perhaps North Coast supervisors should consider a moratorium on the non-essential wells of Big Wine.

“Bigger battles are ahead,” predicts the PD’s April 26 dry farming article. We are at the beginning of intensified water wars in California. Big Wine is part of the problem by hoarding water and should be reigned in.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss {[email protected]} teaches college, farms, has contributed to 24 books, and works with the Apple Roots Group, which challenges Big Wine.)


Shepherd Bliss

Sonoma County

Big Wine

California Drought







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