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California’s Wine Industry Is Leading the Way to a Sustainable Future

Vintners in California are going sustainable in their quest to combat worsening drought.


In the wine world, it is said that a vine that struggles produces better wine. But in California, long-term drought, temperature spikes, and recent wildfires continue to test this theory, and the wine industry has taken notice. 

Not only that, industry leaders are starting to take action. 

Just north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has emerged as a global leader in the sustainability movement, pushing to become the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region -in 2019. According to the Sonoma County Winegrowers' 4th Annual Sustainability Report, 72 percent of the vineyard acreage in the county – more than 42,083 acres – has already been certified sustainable. 

Meet Karissa Kruse

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, is the woman behind this bold initiative.  

“Our program involves everything from educating employees, to looking at each grower’s business plan year after year,” she said. But it also involves more specific environmental initiatives such as reducing a vineyard’s carbon footprint, increasing biodiversity, reducing water usage and improving water quality, as well as managing fertilizers and pest controls in the vineyards.

Kruse became president of Sonoma County Winegrowers in 2012, just six months after joining the organization. As president, she piloted the program to reach 100 percent sustainability - in 2019. “Sonoma County was the perfect place to have this sort of commitment because a lot of our winegrowers here are small, multi-generational family farmers,” Kruse said, “if anyone could do this, we thought we would have a good shot at making this big commitment.” 

And this commitment is paying off. Kruse has spent the past four years encouraging growers to opt into the program, which she says has been well received. This year, 92 percent of the county's vineyard acres have completed the sustainability self-assessment, which is the first step in achieving the sustainable certification. 

“The sustainability commitment fits who we are,” Kruse said, “It’s in our DNA.” 

She said that in Sonoma, farmers have almost always done what was right for the land because there is an understanding that it will be passed down to their children. Kruse thought she could formalize this ethos by embracing what was already being done while supporting the adoption of sustainability programs such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance which has   -a broad set of triple bottom line standards and brings in third-party auditors to validate it. 

“Now, we have workers in the fields using iPads to navigate water management alongside historical pruning techniques that have been passed down for generations, and it’s all happening on the same ranch,” she said. 

But inherited knowledge and technology may not be enough to solve California’s long-persisting issues with drought. In April of 2017, Governor Jerry Brown ended the drought state of emergency in most of California but declared that California must continue its water conservation efforts into the future. 

Why Is Climate Change a Big Deal for the Wine Industry?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global temperature and precipitation levels will continue to change dramatically over the coming decades. In California, studies show that warming temperatures and a reduction in freshwater may cause a substantial loss of land currently used for premium grape production, especially in areas like Napa and Santa Barbara Counties where land loss could be near 50 percent of current acreage. 

Higher temperatures have already forced growers to pick earlier in the growing season to prevent sugar levels from skyrocketing. The higher a grape’s sugar level when harvested, the higher the alcohol content in finished wines. While this may sound intoxicating, high alcohol levels negatively impact the taste and quality of a wine. 

And it’s not just about beating the heat. A 2009 Stanford University study found that “the future availability of water is also a pressing concern for the industry. Nearly every future climate projection for California predicts increased instances of drought.” Historically, viticulture, relative to other crops, has not been considered a water-intensive crop, which means that growers have limited availability to the state’s water rights. As instances of prolonged drought and competition for water increases, gaining access to water for irrigation will become more and more challenging.  

California Governor Jerry Brown: My Faith Compels Me to Act on Climate

“You can’t be in California and farm, and not have water be one of your biggest considerations for sustainability,” Kruse said. “Especially in California, no one wants to be a water waster.” 

Around 40 of the 148 assessments within the Sonoma sustainability certification touch water usage in some way, from water quality to runoff. In the last few years, many growers have moved toward solar to power their irrigation and pumps. 

There is also an expectation of continuous improvement embedded into the certification. Growers are required to improve their scores in at least one area each year. The assessment helps growers farm more holistically, rather than just reacting to the changing of seasons. “One of my grape growers compared it to getting a PhD in his vineyard,” Kruse said. 

It has also given growers a distinct voice in the world of wine. For the first time, grape growers have been afforded a mouthpiece through which they can talk to the consumer about their farming in Sonoma. “Everyone cares about farm to table, but no one pays attention to vine to bottle,” Kruse said. 

But This Is Starting to Change.  

In January, Sonoma County Winegrowers announced a Sonoma County Sustainable wine label, which will appear on nearly 24,000 cases of the 2017 vintage hitting the shelves this year.  Kruse is most excited about the label, as it represents the culmination of years of planning and a tireless commitment to pursuing global leadership in sustainability.

“If you want credit for being a leader in sustainability, you actually have to be a leader in sustainability,” Kruse said. “You can't get credit for something you haven't done.” Under her stewardship, and with the enthusiasm of the 1,800 growers she represents, Sonoma County has become the consummate leader of the pack. Now it is up to the rest of the wine world (and beyond) to follow suit. 

Take the extra step to help us protect what matters

Looking for ways to support sustainability in your own community? Take climate action by helping to protect the health of soil, which is threatened by climate impacts like erosion, pollution, and losses in organic matter.

Get an in-depth look at climate change’s impact on soil health as well as what’s at stake and what you can do to support a world where we can provide our booming population with fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem in Right Under Your Feet: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis.

Download this free resource now – and make sure you share it with your friends and family.