How the California Wine Industry is Proactively Responding to Climate Change

Date: 19 October, 2021 / Author: Liz Thach MW

California Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain AVA. Photo credit: Liz Thach MW

‘For anyone who is doubtful about climate change, just spend some time in a wine grape vineyard,’ states a winemaker in Mendocino County, California. ‘Because of the increasing temperatures, the grapes are ripening two to three weeks earlier than they did 20 years ago, and we also have many more severe weather patterns.’

Indeed, over the last decade California wine regions have been wracked by some of the worst wildfires in their history, along with devasting floods that turn vineyards along the Russian River in Sonoma County to lakes. Intense heat spells are followed by cooler than usual summers, yet drought continues to plague many growers. ‘Our water reservoirs have dried up,’ reports a grower in the Petaluma Gap AVA of Sonoma County, ‘and I can’t afford to truck in water for the vines. So we’re seeing a good number of our vines not producing this year.’

Despite all of these challenges, California vineyard owners have been fighting back, and many of the changes they have made – along with new initiatives – are helping to combat climate change. These efforts are commendable because the 2021 UN Climate Report has confirmed that global warming of 1.5°C to 2°C will occur as soon as 2040 if the world doesn’t take actions to reduce carbon emissions soon. More intense weather events, such as wildfires, extreme heat, flooding, frost, hurricanes, tornados and hail are just some of the negative impacts of global warming.

Early Environmentally Friendly Initiatives by California Wine Industry

The California Wine industry actually started working on sustainability initiatives as early as 1999 when a group of grape growers, environmentalists and government officials met to discuss practices that would help to save salmon and other fish in the Russian River corridor. Their efforts culminated in the Fish Friendly Farming (FFF) certification which set in place beneficial farming practices to reduce erosion, soil loss and water quality degradation, and is also cost-effective. Over the last 22 years, many California vineyards have been certified by FFF.

This early effort spurred the California Sustainable Winegrowing certification (CCSW), started in 2001 by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers. It resulted in a codebook of 191 best practices for energy saving, environmental protection, positive labour and community relations, launched in 2003. To date, 2,247 California vineyards (33%) and 171 wineries (responsible for 80% of wine production), have been certified sustainable by CCSW.

Other regions in California were so inspired by these early programmes that they researched and introduced their own regional sustainability certifications. These include Lodi Rules, launched in the Lodi wine region in 2005; SIP Certified started in 2008 by Central Coast wineries, and Napa Green, launched in 2008 by the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

Today, all of these programmes have their own third-party certification arm, and many California vineyards and wineries have attained multiple certifications. An auditor must review all of the sustainability practices once a year to ensure that growers and wineries can remain certified. The fees range from $1,000 to $3,000 annually, but vary based on the certification type, number of vineyard acres and/or wine cases produced.

In addition to these certifications, a number of California vineyards and wineries are also certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and/or certified biodynamic by Demeter.

California Wine Regions Moving from Sustainable to Climate Positive

Some California wine regions have done so well in achieving sustainability certifications that they have adopted more challenging goals. For example, when 99% of Sonoma County vineyards were certified sustainable in 2019 and 94% of Napa vineyards and wineries achieved certification under the Napa Green programme, both counties opted to reduce their carbon footprint and become ‘climate positive’.

Climate positive is defined as beyond carbon neutral, so that business operations actually result in negative emissions. This is primarily accomplished by eliminating activities that produce carbon emissions, reducing waste and sequestering carbon. Examples in the winery are converting energy sources from gas and propane to electric and solar energy; reducing packaging waste; using lighter wine bottles (heavy wine bottles are one of the major contributors to wine’s carbon footprint, both in the production process and transport weight), and conserving energy and water usage. Activities in the vineyard include reducing the number of tractor passes through the vines, using electric tractors or horses, less tilling of the soil and planting shrubs and other plants to sequester carbon.

The Napa Green organization has just set a new goal to work with certified growers to become carbon neutral within six years (2027) and climate positive within nine years (2030). ‘Any continued actions we can take to reduce energy use in the vineyard and wineries will help to reduce our carbon footprint,’ acknowledged Anna Brittain, executive director for Napa Green.

In Sonoma County, Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, describes how they have adopted a similar programme called the Climate Adaption Certification Program. ‘We launched this programme in 2020,’ says Kruse, ‘and are working with local vineyards to administer best practices to maximize the sequestration of carbon emissions.’

Individual wineries have also set goals to reduce their carbon footprint. Jackson Family Wines, headquartered in Sonoma County, has recently set a goal to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2030 and become climate positive by 2050. Treasury Wine Estates, owner of Beringer in Napa Valley, has set a corporate goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

Finally, the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), founded in 2019 by Familia Torres of Spain and Jackson Family Wines of California, now includes seven California wineries out of 20 global members. The largest is Constellation Brands’ fine wine portfolio, headquartered in California. The goal of IWCA is to share best practices so members can ‘act collectively to decarbonize the global wine industry’.

Hopefully, many more California wineries and vineyards, along with others around the globe, will continue to take more positive actions to reduce global warming. After all, vineyards serve as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ – wine grapes are one of the world’s earliest impacted agricultural crops, they are a mirror of climate change.

Dr. Liz Thach MW is a wine journalist, educator and researcher. She has published more than 150 articles and nine wine books, including Luxury Wine Marketing with co-author Peter Yeung. She currently works at Sonoma State University in California as the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management.
Liz is a contributor to our new book, On California, From Napa to Nebbiolo… Wine Tales from the Golden State, published this October.