California Dreamin’: West Coast Wines in Peril?

While Hollywood sequels and tech start-ups proliferate exponentially, California’s wine industry is at risk of withering on the vine.

Unprecedented droughts in the last several years, widely attributed to climate change[1], have wreaked havoc on the sensitivities of pinot noirs and cabernet sauvignons. While lack of water is the immediate concern, extreme heat can change the colour and taste of grapes by impacting their acidity[2]. Recent studies have estimated that the average temperature in California could rise by 1.8° Fahrenheit (1° Celsius) by 2040 due to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases. The resulting impact could reduce suitable wine-cultivating land by up to 50%[3],[4].


California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA)

California produces approximately 85% of all U.S. wines (638 million gallons in 2015)[5]. In response to early legislation and public perception, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance was formed in 2003 as a proactive approach to addressing sustainability issues. The CSWA is a non-profit organization that “promotes environmental stewardship and social responsibility in the California wine community”[6]. Composed of the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the CSWA has developed the California Code of Sustainable Wine Growing (CCSW) that focuses on eight key sustainability metrics: water efficiency, energy efficiency, pest management, soil health, waste management, wildlife habitat, neighbours and community, and employees.

As water management has the greatest impact on wine quality, in 2015 an overwhelming majority of growers certified by the CSWA used a combination of both micro-irrigation systems and regulated deficit irrigation (RDI) to control water efficiency and improve fruit quality[7]. Micro-irrigation systems allow the grower to control how much water gets applied to the crop and when, while RDI only applies irrigation to specific stages of a crop’s growth, both reducing water use. This has a knock-on effect on energy consumption, as energy is required to pump water from wells or irrigation ponds. Finally, reduced energy consumption lowers the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

As of August 2016, 106 wineries representing 64% of total wine production (measured by total number of cases produced) were CSSW-certified[8]. E&J Gallo, the largest family-owned winery and largest exporter of California wine, is one of the leaders in sustainability practices; it saved 11MM kilowatt-hours of energy in 2015 while avoiding 15,000 tons of C02 emissions[9]. In a more radical move to stem future changes in climate, Gallo and other wineries have started to cultivate different types of grapes that can survive in hotter weather. However, wineries face a huge hurdle in acclimating consumer tastes to new grape varieties that they are unfamiliar with. Given the large upfront investment to produce a wine, those in the industry are wary of betting the wrong way with a new variety[10].

Sour Grapes or No Grapes?

In the short term, there are additional production strategies that the CSWA can suggest to its members. Other mitigation systems include a special trellis to provide shade or a specialized irrigation system to provide cooling for plants. Post-harvest, wineries also have the option of modifying fermentation processes[11]. While climate change has threatened Californian producers, the shift has been a boon to regions like Washington, which have seen their production double in the last decade[12]. Without more innovative changes, the CSWA risks lower production from its members and potential loss of market share to other states.


Beyond the current measures to optimize production, the CSWA should consider fundamental shifts in production philosophy and study the benefits of utilizing more sophisticated technology. For example, one winemaker has turned to the use of drones for aerial scans of his acres, while scientists are testing the use of near-infrared sensors. Both methods aim to gather more accurate data on the crops to inform the winemaker’s decision on how much water, fertilizer, and energy are required in certain areas of a vineyard[13].

While new grape varieties may not be in demand with consumers, the CSWA should further explore the possibility of adapting existing grape varieties to suit future weather conditions. Two scientists at St. Louis University were recently awarded a $4.6 million grant to study grapevines’ root systems to innovate more sustainable agricultural practices [14]. In effect, the root systems of grapes could potentially be adapted for changing climates without the need for engineering a new grape variety. If successful, it could eliminate the need to re-educate consumers and allow Californian growers to remain competitive in the face of changing weather patterns. The study is scheduled to be completed in five years.

While there are many changes ahead, Californian winemakers are moving to adapt and will likely continue to prosper. In the meantime, we can all enjoy a glass of California’s finest and dream of warm summer days.

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Cited Sources

[1],3,11 Stanford University. 2016. Global warming could alter U.S. premium wine industry within 30 years, Stanford scientists say. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[2],10 2016. Climate Change Has California Vintners Rethinking Grapes : NPR. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[4] National Geographic News. 2016. New Vineyards Could Create Conservation Challenges. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[5] US / California Wine Production – The Wine Institute. 2016. US / California Wine Production – The Wine Institute. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[6],7 California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. 2016. 2015 California Wine Community Sustainability Report. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[8] California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance | Certified Participants. 2016. California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance | Certified Participants. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[9] ISM – Institute for Supply Management. 2016. ISM – Institute for Supply Management-E&J Gallo Winery. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[12] New York Times. 2016. Drought is Bearing Fruit for Washington Wineries. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[13] Renee Morad. 2016. In Wineries vs. Weather, Drones to the Rescue? | Fast Forward | OZY. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].

[14] NSF Grant Will Help Missouri-Led Team Study How to Adapt Crops to Climate Change : SLU. 2016. NSF Grant Will Help Missouri-Led Team Study How to Adapt Crops to Climate Change : SLU. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 November 2016].



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Student comments on California Dreamin’: West Coast Wines in Peril?

  1. Interesting post!!

    As we had learned in our recent classes, the pressure to be sustainable also has a profit motive piece to it. I liked your suggestion on investing in technology, but constantly wonder how a competitive industry like wine can / will justify these technology investments. Some of the wine producers sell fairly low priced wines, but I would assume they are some of the bigger players who drive the highest volume of sales. Given this, I wonder if they did invest in technology to be more sustainable / climate friendly, if they would pass on the cost to the consumer. Will the consumer that normally buys a lower priced bottle of wine, now pay more for a bottle that is environmentally friendly and made with sustainable practices? Would be interesting to see how this could play out.

  2. Protect my Pinots!

    This post does a great job illustrating the impacts of the CA drought beyond just almonds. The scale of the wine industry in CA relative to the US is also a reminder that climate issues are a shared responsibility. During the recent drought CA did a lot to reduce its water consumption, but the rest of the world benefits from its produce. The rest of the US should do more to mitigate its impact on global warming (ahem coal country) and share more resources when drought conditions to affect our food supply (or our wine supply).

  3. This was an amazing read, considering I’m one of those consumers that the price of an organic wine’s inputs are passed on to because that’s the variety I choose to buy as part of my role in following sustainable practices.
    I do wonder about the push and pull between established vineyards and boutique vineyards- to change the fundamental wine growing philosophy, a significant monetary and time investment in change farming and sustainable activities is needed. Do you know if there are any benefits, subsidies or assistance that smaller vineyards looking to go green can get to incentivise themselves to make this change?

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