Turning Water into Wine

The Bible tells us that Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1-11) — a miracle!  Given the amount of water used in making wine today I think the miracle isn’t so much the conversion itself (no sacrilege intended) as the efficiency with which it was accomplished.  Jesus didn’t waste a drop.  Improving water use in winemaking is a serious issue today.

The End of Cheap Water

Readers of this blog know that water is important in wine production, but you may not appreciate just how much the wine industry depends upon cheap water supply.  I have written about the effects of the Australian drought on wine output there, for example, and how producers like Casella (Yellow Tail) are adjusting.  But water isn’t just an Australian wine problem, as everyone in the business knows, and the situation isn’t getting any better.

So the December 2008 issue of Wine Business Monthly is especially welcome.  WBM chooses a theme for the last issue of each year and this time it’s “The End of Cheap, Plentiful Water;” it is required reading for anyone interested in the economics of wine. Much of what follows is based on data from the WBM report.

Given all the attention that the Australian drought has received it would be easy to dismiss wine’s water woes as just another example of the challenge of global climate change.  And while this is undeniably true to some extent, I think it is more useful to think about the water problem in terms of supply and demand.

Winegrapes: Squeezed and Dried

The supply of water for wine production is limited by nature, of course, especially in the long run, but that’s the easy part (and the focus of the climate change discussion).  It is perhaps more realistic to consider that the supply of water for wine is limited by competing water needs. Water is valuable for environmental purposes, such as to maintain fish runs, for example.  Water is needed for residential and industrial uses, too.  And of course water is in very high demand for agricultural crops other than winegrapes.  About 80% of California’s annual non-environmental water “budget” goes to agriculture, including wine.  Residential and business use accounts for rest.  As population continues to grow, the squeeze will affect everyone.

Between competing uses and recent drought conditions, it is no wonder that the water supply for winegrape production is being squeezed.

All agriculture suffers when water becomes scarce and drought conditions force both a general reduction in farm output and also a shift away from the most water-intensive crops to those that use water more sparingly.  In Australia, for example, we have seen a decline in grape production in some areas due to drought and a shift from rice to grapes in other areas. 2001 data from the California Department of Water Resources estimates that grape growers in that state use an average of 2 acre-feet of water.  That’s about 25% more than used for grain crops, but much less than rice production (nearly 6 acre-feet of water) or corn and tomatoes (about 4 acre-feet).

Water use in winegrape production varies considerably.  Irrigation isn’t always necessary or even desirable, but high volume production is very water-dependent.  It takes 75 gallons of water in the vineyard to grow the grapes for one gallon of wine in the California North Coast area.  That seems pretty inefficient until you compare it with Central Valley production, where the ratio is 430 gallons in the vineyard to one gallon of wine! Water is also used in some areas for frost protection, which can adds to the total water bill.

Water use doesn’t end once the grapes have been harvested. On average it takes about six gallons of water in the cellar to make a gallon of wine. Barrel-washing and tank cleaning account for much of the water use, but everything in a wine cellar needs to be as clean as possible, and  water is often the most convenient tool.

The trick, as many wineries have discovered, is to conserve and recycle.  High pressure / low flow nozzles and barrel-cleaning rigs can do more with less.  Waste water can be collected and filtered for many uses from irrigation to flushing the toilets.  Erath Winery in Oregon employs a filtration process that allows it to reused 97 percent of winery processing water in one way or another. (Local ryegrass farmers use the rest as fertilizer.)  Snoqualmie Vineyards, like Erath part of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates group, uses just 2.9 gallons of water in the cellar per gallon of wine, an indication of the sort of savings that are possible.

What’s Your Water Footprint?

article. It’s only a matter of time, I think, until we start worrying about our water footprint as well as our carbon footprint. You can learn more about the water footprint concept at WaterFootprint.com. Here are some estimates of water costs associated with various products as reported on their website.

Water Footprint Logo
  • One cup of tea: 30 litres of water
  • One slice of bread: 40 litres
  • One apple: 70 litres
  • One glass of beer: 75 litres
  • One glass of wine: 120 litres
  • One cup of coffee: 140 litres
  • One glass of milk: 200 litres
  • One liter of wine: 960 litres
  • One hamburger: 2400 litres

I have seen reports that a Big Mac’s water footprint is 5000 litres, a huge number but understandable when you consider that the production of beef and cheese are both very water-intensive (particularly when the cattle are raised on diets of irrigated grains instead of natural grasses).  I guess a kilo of beef requires  15,500 litres of water.  Amazing!

These figures are estimates of the total water use, including transportation and packaging, which is why the wine figures are so high.  I’m sure that it takes a lot of water to produce and clean wine bottles.  The labels (paper), closures and shipping boxes add to the water footprint.  It all adds up, for wine as for other products.

It Isn’t Easy Being Blue

The wine industry is in the vanguard of many important environmental movements.  Being green (and now blue, I suppose, to represent water) is good marketing for a lot of industries.

But it is good economics for the wine industry, too, because water is such a key resource that we need to manage well in the vineyard, in the cellar and throughout the production process.

[Thanks to Wine Business Monthly for the information in their December 2008 issue and to a former student, Jenna Silcott, for making me think about water resources once again.]

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4 responses

  1. Mike, I enjoyed your article and found the examples given very interesting. I am working on a research project one element of which is water footprinting for wine. I have untaken some basic comparisons between Australian and US wineries and ended up with major unexplained differences in water/wine relationships both as betwen purely Australian operations and the international comparisons. Would you be interested in co-developing a classical model which can be used both domestically and for international comparisons. sincerely, Ian

  2. It may be worth focusing on the work some wine companies in Australia have been doing to reduce water use to grow grapes. As an industry we understand the water footprint issues and have taken considerable measures to improve the situation. The concerns about the material you have written is you have focused on the symptoms and failed to state that management technologies exist to improve water use. I personally have spent much time reviewing the impact of drought tolerant rootstocks, mulch and converting irrigation systems so that they less water is used. I would like to see more written on what the Australian Wine Industry is doing rather than what they are not!

    • Thanks, Ashley. That’s a good point. The post you are commenting on was written a while ago and I have not had a chance to update it. But I have seen a number of articles about the sort of positive actions that you suggestion. I think this was a focus of a recent issue of Wine Business Monthly, for example. Thanks again. Mike

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