Turning water into wine

Vineyards in California need to figure out how to use less water to produce fine vintages

Vineyards throughout California are finding themselves in a moral and economic crisis as the state’s worst drought ravishes the land. Vineyards are highly water dependent, but due to their luxury nature and the increase in demand for fine Californian wines, many have not done enough to adapt their business models to a new drought-tolerant paradigm.

Droughts have an intense effect on agriculture, increasing the costs and complexities for farms to bring water to its crops, and often altering or even destroying crops outright. In the United States, especially in the western and southwestern states, droughts have been a major, lasting issue affecting many industries. As an example, at the end of 2015, 69% of the land area in the state of California was classified as subject to “Extreme Drought” by the United States Drought Monitor and 100% of the state was classified as “Abnormally Dry”1. As temperatures have risen around the state, changing the hydrologic cycle, droughts have become exacerbated and prolonged. The current drought cycle, which has lasted for a number of years now, has effected Californians’ access to water. As a result of the drought, the state issued dramatic, state-wide water conservation targets, forcing farms and households to rethink the way they use water2.

In Napa Valley, some innovative wine producers are coming up with creative ways to irrigate their vineyards as droughts are fierce and prolonged. As an example the large-scale, well-known Francis Ford Coppola Winery is recycling their water waste for re-irrigation. Using a membrane bioreactor, the Coppola winery collects and filtrates waste water from around the winery to be used in the irrigation of its vines3. Therefore, the water it draws from nearby sources is significantly limited, even in light of the irrigation-dependent farming the vineyard employs. Despite the relief a machine such as this offers the stressed California water system, the cost can prohibit many smaller producers from enacting similar sustainability measures.

However, cheaper alternatives exist. Many vineyards in California and around the world practice a technique called “dry-farming”, which relies solely on natural rainfall for watering throughout the growing season with no irrigation during dry spells. The Sonoma County winery Emeritus Vineyards, has recently converted to dry-farming in response to recent droughts and in search for deeper flavor4. Over five years, Emeritus Vineyards let their vines go thirsty during dry spells, forcing them to dig their roots deeper into the ground.

When a vine is consistently watered, its roots congregate near the ground’s surface, soak up water as it lands, and become accustomed to and dependent on constant irrigation. Dry-farming, however, has an opposite effect on the roots of the plant. When a plant begins to be starved for water, its roots dig deep into the ground spreading over a greater coverage area in search for water. As a result, quick spurts of irrigation have little effect on the plant since there is no longer a bunching of roots near the surface.

While true that dry-farmed vineyards produce a lower yield of smaller grapes, there are enormous economic and business benefits to the conversion. Smaller grapes have greater skin-to-juice ratios offering more flavor. Further, many wine producers believe that as roots dig deeper into the ground, they are able to grab more terroir from the earth below translating into more complex wines. Since better tasting wines can demand greater prices, wineries can compensate for diminished yields from smaller grapes.

Using highly precise measurements and analytics, vineyards can calculate minimal optimal water requirements for their vines in order to ensure limited water waste. Soil moisture monitoring systems such as the EnviroSCAN or Neutron Probe system, provide detailed and precise information for wineries to monitor irrigation levels5. Vines can be overwatered as they reach an inflection point where increased irrigation offers no increase in yield. It is important for wine producers to understand this threshold and ensure that it is not surpassed. At the Rodney Strong Wine Estate, ground-level data is collected including the evaporation rate, vine spacing, soil composition, root structure, and many more data points to determine optimal watering levels. Last year the vineyard saved 18 million gallons of water ensuring limited over-irrigation.

While water reclamation and dry farming offer two solutions to increased drought tolerance for vineyards, wineries must think of more creative ways to become sustainable. As consumer luxury producers in prime agricultural real estate in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recorded history, wineries have a duty to consider alternative water solutions and water saving opportunities. (749 words)


  1. S. Drought Monitor , November 1, 2016. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA, accessed November 3, 2016.
  2. California State Water Resource Control Board. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/conservation_portal/, accessed November 3, 2016.
  3. Andrew Adams, “Winery Wastewater OK for Irrigation” . http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=158781, accessed November 3, 2016.
  4. Emeritus Vineyards. http://www.emeritusvineyards.com/?method=pages.showPage&PageID=2C7803ED-E175-576B-EFA5-449CF5AC242D&originalMarketingURL=farming, accessed November 3, 2016.
  5. “Water Use in Wineries”, April 20, 2014. http://www.colorado.edu/geography/class_homepages/geog_4501_sum14/Presentations/StExample-NCal%20Spr11.pdf, accessed November 3, 2016.



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Student comments on Turning water into wine

  1. Good insights on dry-farming. This approach can be used broadly for managing water and other resources in developing worlds. By relying on natural rainfall for watering throughout the growing season with no irrigation during dry spells, farmers can become more equipped to flourish in times of drought

  2. It’s insightful to learn that wineries in California have alternatives other than recycling water, because I always thought they were so susceptible to weather that their yearly output totally depended on it. I wonder if this is something that could be transferred to growing other crops as well, since we hear about saving water every day in California. Industries can save water only up to a certain point and we cannot control drought, so I agree that vineyards as well as other farms should develop new ways of farming to adapt to the changes.

  3. Thanks for this interesting insight. Wine is a luxury asset that is typically consumed several years after production. I wonder if consumers will value the quality of dry-farmed wine in the same way as they would if it was produced traditionally. There is a specific wine consumption culture that is focused on the vintage, the process, and the taste of wine. I wonder how dry-farming will impact the sommelier and restaurant business, and how widely accepted this practice will be among the upper-end wine consumers who value the traditional aspects of wine. It will be interesting to see if this practice is accepted globally and how the competitive landscape will change because of a change in the wine production process.

  4. Thanks for the insights!! Having frequented 2 of the 3 wineries you mentioned, I hope more wineries in the area follow similar trends in order to ensure long-term viability and enjoyability for all. I understand that the amount of “minimal optimal water” can be measured, but I wonder how this relates to the several-year drought CA is experiencing. Are there long-term damages to the vine with this type of approach if used over several consecutive seasons? What happens to the vines as the groundwater levels in CA decrease as the drought persists– are the vines pulling water from the groundwater reservoirs (here’s an article describing the trend: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140819-groundwater-california-drought-aquifers-hidden-crisis/)? I have heard of the similar thought that letting the vines “suffer” could make the vines and grapes stronger in the end in the documentary “A Year in Burgundy”. It’s not necessarily focused on climate change effects but is a fun watch if you’re interested in the wine industry.

  5. Thanks so much for this post Alejandro! If that is your real name…
    It’s brilliant how even a 1st world business can actually improve their sustainable production process so much, inspired by a negative natural disasters, in this case – droughts.

    One thing that came to mind was whether or not the state of California has been considering larger scale state level solutions due to their repeated droughts. I assume these droughts affect other agricultural spaces and one possible solution could be desalination of saltwater. Do you know whether this topic has ever been explored? Would it make financial sense? Could this be done on a vineyard scale?

  6. Thanks a lot for the insightful post Alejandro. Having just read a post on cocoa production, I’m noticing some similar challenges in both sectors. While there are clear production factors that differ between U.S. and places like West Africa where there is a lot more emphasis on cocoa growing, I wonder how the tactical experience that vineyards are amassing on how to optimize yield in the face of dry-farming could be shared with tangential industries. I imagine there’s quite a bit of best practice that vineyard owners have learned!

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