Under Climate Stress, California Wine Country Tries to Shrink Carbon Footprint

Fetzer Vineyards and others are switching to solar energy and biodiesel fuel, as a new breed of ethical consumer is forcing wineries to decarbonize

Image: Gerry la Londe-Berg

California's wine industry is under threat from global warming, and while the problem is too big for the wineries to handle on their own, some are trying to lead by example by doing things like installing solar panels and using less glass in their bottling plants.

"There are strong initiatives in the wine industry to reduce climate change impacts," said Ann Thrupp, the director of sustainability at Fetzer Vineyards in Northern California, in an interview.

Areas suitable for growing wine grapes in the United States, the fourth largest wine producer behind France, Italy and Spain, could shrink by as much as 81 percent by the end of the century due to rising temperatures, according to research published in the National Academy of Sciences. The Northern California Napa and Sonoma valleys would be hit the hardest.

Climate change would trigger more extreme heat waves, harming premium wine grapes that need stable temperatures to flourish by causing them to overripen from too much sugar.

California's wine industry accounts for up to three percent of the state's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to government estimates. Thrupp says she has made it her goal to help vineyards bring the industry's CO2 footprint to zero.

Overall, reducing fossil fuel dependency is key, observers say, as is cutting down on the number of coast-to-coast and worldwide flights to transport wine.

Quality Wine, Small Carbon Footprint

Founded in 1968 in Mendocino County, Fetzer Vineyards was one of California's first companies to start making Chardonnay and Riesling. It has won a number of accolades for its wine making, and is now gaining eco-attention.

The winery is part of California's Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (SWA) and is certified as a sustainable company, also providing grants to other vineyards to become the same. The SWA has more than 1,400 wineries participating in the Sustainable Winegrowing Program, with around 10 percent officially approved as "sustainable" by the alliance.

"Our goal is to achieve an environmental balance by conserving resources and promoting better practices while giving people the best quality wine," Thrupp said of her winery.

To do so, Fetzer uses biodiesel fuel in many of its trucks and tractors, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by a modest four metric tons each year, equivalent to the yearly emissions of a typical passenger car. Further, the company boasts the local wine industry's largest solar power system. It generates 1.1 MM  kilowatt-hours of clean electricity, the equivalent, in carbon saved, of  "planting nearly 200 acres of pine fir forest," according to Thrupp.

Fetzer uses 17 percent less glass in its bottles than the average winery, a cost-cutting move that has also reduced the carbon output of its operations by 14 percent, she says. For the past decade, it has conserved water by improving hose nozzles, using high-efficiency barrel washing and storing rainwater in ponds.

Matter of Economic Survival

These climate-friendly production practices are what Thrupp will be discussing on a panel at next month's California's Climate and Agriculture Summit. The meeting will gather farming experts working on the latest developments in science and practice "that show promise for both reducing greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture and for sequestering carbon," according to its website.

Thrupp says many companies simply do not understand how reducing greenhouse gases can cut the costs of their operations by trimming energy bills.

She also believes that the big wineries must heed demands of a new breed of ethical consumer who prefers wine that is both tasty and environmentally friendly, or their ability to compete will suffer.

Pierre John, a French wine industry expert who has helped build sustainable wineries in France and in California, agrees on both counts.

"Too often [wine] companies don't think it is practical to make environmental changes that benefit the planet because it is too expensive, but in France and here in California, we are seeing efforts to reduce footprints that are also reducing overall costs," he told SolveClimate News.

Like Thrupp, he says that wine consumers in Europe and in the U.S. want to be a part of the "environmental revolution."

That makes practices to "green up" operations a matter of economic survival, he said, adding that the efforts of sustainable wine advocates mustn't be overlooked.

"They are able to work from within the institutions that already exist and push for a better business model that takes into account the environmental concerns," he said.

Mindset Overhaul Needed at Wineries

However, in order to get to where Thrupp and John want to go, the industry needs to fundamentally overhaul its mindset, said now-retired winemaker Jackson Hopkins, who helped manage Columbia Vineyards in central Washington state for the past 15 years before leaving the industry.

"For too long the industry has sat back and allowed climate change to take over instead of going at it head on," Hopkins said.

Like others in the field, he told SolveClimate News that the entire industry should, at a minimum, cut back on carbon-heavy transport and reduce water consumption.

"The first thing that needs to be done is transportation methods. The big rigs and air transport are seeing carbon emissions get out of control. California has the ability to use electric power to transport their wine to local retailers. This, in my view, is would be a giant leap forward."

"The industry continues to make wine the same way we have for centuries, but this is wasteful," he continued. "Water management, as Thrupp's company has pointed out, can reduce dramatically the pull on the environment. According to my understanding, a reduction in water consumption will not hurt the industry."

Hopkins expressed uncertainty over whether a zero-carbon footprint is within reach for the California wine country.

"There is a chance through real implementation of initiatives that Fetzer and others are trying to dramatically reduce the environmental costs of the wine makers, but only if people are ready to do so.

"The wine industry doesn't really have an incentive to make these changes now, because Americans are still buying wine. When they start to look for better companies, the changes that we seek will be forced upon the industry by the consumers, just like the car companies were forced to."

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