California’s Leading Role in Sustainable Winemaking

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 16 Nov 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
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California Wine Sustainability - Credit : California Wine Institute

What is Sustainability? 

Sustainability is a mindset that focuses on protecting resources for future generations. Experts often refer to three pillars that must work in harmony for long term success, namely:

Environmental Protection --- Social Equity --- Economic Viability

While environmental stewardship is a key focus for organic and biodynamic practitioners, the social and economic concerns of sustainability give it more far-reaching implications.

Sustainability in the California Wine Industry

In 2003, the California Wine Institute (CWI) and California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) joined forces to form the non-profit California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA).

Today, the CSWA is California’s sustainable viticulture and winemaking authority, responsible for the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing. This guide lays out best practices in all areas of grape growing and winery protocols.

In 2010, the CSWA developed a third-party certification process. Nine years later, over 2,000 vineyards (a total of nearly 185,000 acres [74,990 acres] of vines) are certified sustainable, equating to just under 30% of California’s total winegrape acreage. What’s more, 85% of Californian wine, some 255 million cases, is produced in certified wineries. 

Focus Areas for Wine Sustainability in California

The California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing offers recommendations for a huge array of viticultural and winery practices, including: soil management, vineyard and winery water management and conservation, pest management, ecosystem management, energy efficiency, solid waste management, wine quality, environmentally preferable purchasing, human resources, community involvement, air quality, and so forth. 

Water is a limited resource in California’s sunny, dry summers, with drought periods and flash flooding being major issues. Water conservation is therefore a major aspect of sustainability. In the vineyards drip irrigation has been adopted on a massive scale, with many larger players investing in soil probes, weather stations, and aerial imagery to monitor signs of water stress in order to precisely time water applications. New plantings on drought-resistant rootstocks, watered only in their first few years then encouraged to dig deeper for sustenance, are allowing a slow transition to dry farming, a practice that wineries like Napa’s Frog’s Leap, Sonoma’s Bucklin Old Hill Ranch, and Paso Robles’ Tablas Creek all champion.

The crush pad is a major consumer of water in the winery. Simple practices like tracking usage with water flow meters, pre-cleaning equipment before spraying, and using high-pressure/low-flow nozzles are employed by all certified wineries. Wastewater is increasingly treated on-site, with winery wastewater processing ponds cropping up across the state, and some ingenious biodigester systems coming into play. Domaine O’Neill, the 7th largest US winery, recently constructed the world’s biggest worm-powered winery wastewater system, capable of filtering over 1 million gallons per day. 

Increased energy efficiency can lead to substantial savings for both vineyards and wineries, while also reducing their carbon footprint. Nighttime harvesting is practiced throughout the state to keep grapes cool without recourse to refrigeration at the winery, preserving their structural integrity and acid balance. Solar arrays are a common feature in California’s mid-sized to large estates, used to power motors, irrigation pumps, winery equipment, and so on, with an increasing number targeting 100% energy autonomy. Sustainability leader Jackson Family Wines has one of the largest solar arrays in the USA, with their 7.1-million-watt system across 11 wineries, a total of roughly 23,000 solar panels.

Waste reduction is an important component of California’s sustainability programs, from recycling and composting, to water and energy reduction. Limiting dry goods sourcing to sustainable suppliers and purchasing goods with high levels of recycled materials (locally made where possible) is also a key aspect of sustainable decision making in California. The bottles for E & J Gallo wines, the largest US winery by case volume, are made from 50% recycled glass.

Sustainability Leaders 

While many other wine-producing countries and regions are making significant strides in terms of their sustainable commitments (New Zealand is a prime example), California stands out in terms of the size of its certified vineyard area, growing at a rate of 50% in 2019. The commitment of the state’s major players is also worth noting. Boutique operations were perhaps, initially, more nimble in terms of putting more earth-friendly, socially responsible actions in place, however the carbon footprint of the big wineries is such that their sustainability efforts have a far larger impact.

California Wine Sustainability - Credit : California Wine Institute