Water into wine
By Linda Hale, for the Valley of the Moon Alliance
As the autumn harvest season winds down, folks look forward to the holidays and a great glass of wine. We’re lucky to be surrounded by growers like Mike Benziger who have taken the time to develop farming methods that preserve the soil and save water. Mike and the Benziger Family Winery were featured recently in the July 2015 edition of Valley of the Moon magazine, explaining how they came to use biodynamic methods and in the process, save one million gallons of water between 2012 and 2013.
After 12 years of conventional growing using large amounts of water – as much as 300,000 gallons per acre or 100 gallons of water per vine per season – Mike discovered that the soil had been leached of nutrients, unable to sustain bird or even insect life. To his dismay, the grapes were subsisting on what he saw as “artificial, piped-in elements.” He planted cover crops to retain moisture and build the soil. He also established grape vines that could survive by dry farming. But this wasn’t enough and he eventually went so far as to investigate how to recycle the water used for processing the grapes after the harvest.
Mike contacted a U.C. Davis Ph.D. student named Heather Shepherd who had designed a low-tech way of recycling water through building artificial wetlands. The ponds recycle the water and with the help of cattails and bulrushes, winery processing water is cleaned, according to the article, “to the tertiary levels while removing all pollutants and heavy metals.” This water can then be used for irrigation.
What is so amazing about this process is that it has existed in the past in Sonoma Valley and Kenwood. Kenwood had marshlands and wetlands up until the 1990s. In past drought years, marshlands were significantly dry and properties that previously could not pass percolation tests due to standing water could be sold. Wetlands that served as recharge areas were gone and vineyards took their place. We continue to see the expansion of wineries on agricultural land with requirements for drilling even deeper wells. And with the sale and acquisition of large tracts of agricultural land, the small farmer and family wineries are disappearing. Don Wallace (aka “The Dirt Guy”) in the October, 2015 Sonoma County Gazette article “Water, Wine, & Dirt” observed that we have gone from local farmers to “agribusiness professionals in order to save the farm and compete with the rest of the world of wine.” So what happens if we “save the farm” but run out of water?
In the Gazette article Don mentioned that a study was done in Dry Creek Valley to see how much water was currently being used there compared to the past. In 1955 everyone collectively including homeowners, small vineyards, hops, and even prunes used 10,000 acre feet of water. Recently the Dry Creek folks paid for their own hydrology study because of a proposal that would trade some of their water rights for treated waste water, which was not a popular option. In 2006 they discovered that Dry Creek Valley is still only using 10,000 acre feet of water. This was due in part to the established, smaller wineries that practice dry farming in the Dry Creek area and to the change from commercial hops and prunes, crops that also used large amounts of water. That was nine years ago, before the current drought.
Not many wineries, especially new wineries seeking to establish young vines, practice dry farming. As permits are issued for 500,000 case wineries, the County needs to keep in mind that irrigated vineyards use 100 gallons of water per vine per season to grow and sustain each vine. We are seeing an exponential growth of wineries in Sonoma County and we are facing drought conditions. The word “sustainable” has been used to justify this countywide growth without looking at the impacts of cumulative growth. If areas are already over-concentrated as is the case in the Dry Creek Valley, where will wineries be built and where will they get their water?
Stay tuned, because the next topic VOTMA will tackle is the upcoming renewal of our Urban Growth Boundaries and Community Separators. Sonoma County residents overwhelmingly voted to protect our open space over 20 years ago and we have a chance to do it again in 2016. Learn more at our upcoming Valley of the Moon Alliance General Meeting at 7 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 21 at the Kenwood Depot.
The Valley of the Moon Alliance was formed to promote the preservation, protection and maintenance of the agricultural character, natural resources and rural beauty of Sonoma Valley. We are committed to providing a forum for research, information, education and recommendations on projects that affect the environmental qualities of the valley communities.