Field Notes from the Porto Conference on Climate Change and Wine

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Sue and I were in Porto earlier this month for the global conference on climate change and wine. The event started with a day and a half of presentations and discussions directed at climate change solutions for the wine industry and then concluded with a half-day summit on climate change more generally.

The highlight of the summit was a presentation by Al Gore, the prominent climate change activist and former U.S. Vice President. Gore’s presentation was intense, focused, and inspiring. Sue called it a “stem-winder” of a speech — it really got the audience worked up.

The conference itself featured speakers from almost all corners of the wine world (Asia was the missing corner, with one non-wine speaker, Afroz Shah, a United Nations Champion of the Earth, from India, and Rajeev Samant, CEO of India’s Sula Vineyards, in the audience).

Herewith are some field notes from the eleven sessions. I recommend Richard Siddle’s report on the conference for additional detail and analysis. Videos of the presentations are being posted on the Climate Change Leadership YouTube.com page.

Ground Hog Day?

In a pre-conference column I wrote about the tragedy of the Groundhog Day syndrome — experts meet to talk about climate change, but it is mainly talk and nothing really gets done. The next meeting is pretty much like the last one, repeating with only minor variations, as the in the popular Bill Murray film.

The Porto gathering promised to break out of the Groundhog Day cycle and offer real solutions; I am happy to say that it generally delivered. Starting with Miguel Torres, we were offered concrete examples of determined companies and leaders who backed their talk with action.

One thing I learned is this: the basic outline for progress on climate change issues is fairly clear. Start with an environmental audit to establish a baseline, set specific quantitative goals to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, evaluate results, then repeat the process. Some of the achievements reported here were startling and show just how much can be accomplished once a serious commitment is made.

You could tell that many actors were still struggling a bit with exactly where to put priorities: Try to make progress everywhere? Or focus on a few big goals, either the ones that would be easiest or cheapest to achieve or perhaps the ones that would have the biggest impact? I do not know what the answer to that question is, but it is better to know what you want to do than to thrash around blindly.

The Porto Protocol

Participants were encouraged to sign the Porto Protocol, a platform created last July in the first iteration of this conference (which featured a keynote by Barack Obama).  Those who sign the protocol commit to doing more in the future than they are doing now and to sharing their methods and results with others. The idea is to create an open source database that will help everyone do more, faster, better.

Interestingly, Sue and I ran into several people who confided that their organizations were having trouble deciding whether to sign up, which was puzzling because each of them has developed a strong program to promote sustainability and confront climate change.

What’s the problem? One colleague said that his organization was already doing more than the protocol currently requires, so there was a concern that they might not get credit for what they have done. No one said it, but I think it is possible that the transparency requirement could also be an issue. If that’s the case, I hope we can get past it. As Adrian Bridge, the CEO of Taylor’s and the driving force behind this initiative, has said, “There is no time, and no need, to reinvent things. If we share our successes and experiences, we will all benefit.” He is certainly right.

Does Climate Change Action Pay?

This is the question that I am often asked about both climate change programs and sustainability measures generally.  The gist is that these programs are costly. Who is going to pay for them?

I do not recall hearing anyone say that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for climate change-friendly wine, although some of us talked at dinner about what could be done to draw consumer attention to wineries that are taking climate change action.

Does that mean that the costs fall like a tax on the wineries who fight climate change (and not on those who don’t)? Yes and no. Some of the defensive costs of mitigating climate change, especially in the vineyard, are going to be unavoidable. Better to treat them as a sunk cost and move on.

Some positive actions have the potential to pay for themselves, at least in part. Katie Jackson of Jackson Family Wines, told the story of the decision to move to slightly (one ounce) lighter-weight bottles for some of the millions of cases of wine that they sell. The conventional wisdom is that consumers associate lower bottle weight with lower quality, so there was pushback about this method to reduce the firm’s carbon footprint.

Happily, according to Jackson, consumers didn’t notice the difference and the environmental savings became a cost-reducing part of Jackson’s carbon-reducing program. The world is not filled with free lunches like this, but there were several examples given of actions that paid for themselves, contributing to both financial and environmental bottom lines.

All Along the Value Chain

Antonio Amorim, president of the world’s largest natural cork producer, argued for the environmental benefits of natural cork closures. The cork closure, which captures carbon rather than releasing it, can offset the carbon generated by the glass bottle it seals, he said. Amorim announced plans to expand cork forests, building upon previous innovations aimed at speeding up the long cork harvest cycle and ridding corks of perceptible cork taint.

Other speakers addressed issues up and down the supply chain, illustrating both the challenges and opportunities that climate change action presents.

U.C. Davis professor Roger Boulton’s presentation on “The Winery of the Future” was a fascinating deep dive into what is possible with current technology if you decide to design a winery from scratch to have zero or negative emissions. It is like a Rubik’s Cube in a way, since each action has many reactions, but Boulton showed that a solution is possible, with a super-efficient production facility the result.

Call to Action

Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank, Robert Swaak of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and I had the final session of the conference, “Efficiency and Economics: Call to Action” We presented in a “two-minute drill” mode because the earlier sessions went over time and the we had to finish on schedule so that the room could be turned for the afternoon summit.

Rannekleiv focused on the many steps that Rabobank is taking to foster innovation in the food and agriculture sector to address sustainability and climate change issues. Swaak could have touted PwC’s environmental impact assessment practice, but choose instead to add a new dimension to the discussion by highlighting how climate change impacts businesses, and not just wine, through the various often unseen risks that it introduces or magnifies.

I talked about the fact that climate change requires new ways of thinking (which fit in very well with my colleagues’ remarks) and issued the call for action. Wine gets it, I said, but that’s not enough. The wine industry needs to extend its influence across the value chain in order to maximize its impact.

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Sue and I want to thank Adrian, Taylor’s Port, Pancho, and David Furer for organizing this conference and give special thanks to Greg for suggesting that we participate.  To everyone we met at the conference: we hope our paths cross again very soon.

Wine & Climate Change: Groundhogs, Gulliver & the Porto Summit Challenge

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Porto will host a global gathering next week devoted to the topic of Climate Change Leadership: Solutions for the Wine Industry. Sue and I will attend the meetings, including a session on “Economics & Efficiency: A Call to Action” where I will speak along with Stephen Rannekleiv of Rabobank and Robert Swaak of PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The program is a who’s who of wine industry leaders who have chosen to have a dog in the climate change fight. The list begins with Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s Port,  who was instrumental in organizing the event, and continues with Miguel Torres, Cristina Mariani-May, Pau Roca, Antonio Amorim, Greg Jones, Roger Boulton, Jamie Goode, Gerard Bertrand, and on and on. Some guy named Al Gore is giving the summit keynote. Anyone heard of him?

I will be very interested in how the conversation evolves both in the official sessions and in the informal discussions that are sometimes more important. Sue will be paying special attention to the associated trade show because she’s very interested in how talk about climate change and wine translates into action and both the nature of the vendor turnout and the quality of interaction will be a good indicator of potential success.

Groundhog Day Syndrome?

There are lots of meetings and conferences about the environment, sustainability, and climate change. Sometimes in the past they have reminded me of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, where the same talk and motions are repeated as if on an endless loop and little of substance seems to change (until, at last, it does). Climate change has reached a critical moment, however, which demands action over talk.

I’m hopeful that the Porto meeting will avoid the Groundhog Day syndrome and one reason why is the focus on solutions — concrete steps to address climate change issues. And that’s why the trade show will be important, too, because it will an indicator of how seriously the market has embraced the importance of climate change and the opportunity for solutions.

The Gulliver Problem

But then there is the Gulliver problem.  Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver found himself in Lilliput where he was vastly larger and more powerful than the tiny citizens. His every action posed a threat to their world and their only hope was to work together to control the giant. Lacking a massive rope to tie the big guy down, the Lilliputians teamed up with thousands of tiny strands.

Climate change is a bit like Gulliver in that it is a huge force that none of us has the power to stop by ourselves. Top-down initiatives like the Paris Agreement are very important, but need to have bottom-up support. Grassroots. Tiny strands. Addressing climate change head on requires thousands of small concrete actions that taken together can have real meaning.

Why is Wine Different?

So where does the wine industry come in? What is different about wine that makes its Lilliputians think that they can take on Gulliver? This is one of the themes of my talk and, while I don’t want to give too much away just yet, let me share a little of my thinking.

There are many reasons why wine is particularly responsive to climate change issues (you have probably already thought of a few reasons as you read this sentence). But here is an important one. Climate change is an existential threat to civilization and the natural environment, but it is not taken seriously enough by many people because its impacts are uncertain, uneven, and projected into the future.

But wine really is different. The future is now for climate change and wine as the combination of higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events redraws the world wine map. Wine is fragile, vulnerable. Ultimately there is not escaping the climate change threat.

Wine people have little choice but to seize their Lilliputian tools and work to save their businesses, their vineyards, and ultimately themselves.  Porto will be an opportunity to see both the small and the big. Hope to see you there.

What’s Ahead for 2019? Wine Economist World Tour Update

51ppzy7bwzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_The Wine Economist World tour continues in 2019 and I thought you might  be interested in the who/what/when/where because I think my speaking schedule reflects some important issues and concerns in the  global wine business. Here’s an annotated itinerary.

Unified Wine and Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is the Big Show, the largest wine industry gathering in the hemisphere. About 14,000 people will come to Sacramento for the sessions, trade show, and networking opportunities. The Wednesday morning State of the Industry session draws a huge standing-room-only audience that will be anxious to hear about this year’s special challenges: slowing economy, plateauing demand, surplus stocks, and useful strategies to deal with these problems.

I will moderate the session and present, too, along with Jeff Bitter, Allied Grape Growers, Danny Brager, The Nielsen Company, Marissa Lange, LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards, and Glenn Proctor, Ciatti Company. This is a fantastic lineup of speakers with much to say about the industry today and in the future. Not to be missed.

I will be busy again on Thursday morning as co-moderator with L. Federico Casassa, California Polytechnic State University, of “Technology Thursday: From Drones to Chatbots; How the Wine Industry is Embracing Digitalization.”  The speakers will examine digital technology in the vineyard, cellar, and beyond, revealing what’s already available, what is coming soon, and what the  distant future holds. The distant future, by the way, is only ten years away — the pace of technological change is that fast.

There is much to discuss, so there will be about a dozen speakers including Bob Coleman, Treasury Wine Estates, Nick Dokoozlian, E. & J. Gallo Winery, David S. Ebert, Purdue University, Nick Goldschmidt, Goldschmidt Vineyards, Liz Mercer, WISE Academy,  Miguel Pedroza, California State University, Fresno. and Will Thomas, Ridge Vineyards, California. . Each speaker will have just ten “Ted Talk” minutes, so hold onto your hats!

Washington Winegrowers Convention

I will be a busy guy at the Washington Winegrowers Convention & Trade Show in Kennewick, Washington, February 11-14, 2019. I’ll begin early on the morning of the 12th moderating and presenting at the State of the Industry session, which will deal with some of the economic challenges facing the region’s wine businesses today.

Joining me will be Wade Wolfe, Thurston Wolfe Winery, Chris Bitter, Vintage Economics, Steve Fredricks, Turrentine Brokerage, and Jim Mortensen, President & CEO,  Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

In the afternoon I will be part of a session on “Intentional Rosé.”Rosé is the hottest category in wine and so it is no surprise that it gets a full session here and also at the Unified.

I will talk about the global market dynamic and be joined by Megan Hughes, Barnard Griffin winery, Rob Griffin, founder of Barnard Griffin winery, Lacey Lybeck , Vineyard Manager at Sagemoor Vineyards, and Vincent Garge, Maison Henri Garde, Bordeaux. Fred Dex with lead a tasting of Rosé from around the world.

Porto Climate Change and Wine Conference

Sue and I are looking forward to the discussion at Climate Change: Solutions for the Wine Industry in Porto on March 6-7. The focus will be on action, not just talk, which is much appreciated. Al Gore is giving the closing address and a host of wine industry leaders will speak on their concrete efforts to address the challenge of climate change. Climate change is such an obvious risk to the wine industry. It is great to see so many rise to meet the challenge.

I will be moderating and presenting at a session called “Efficiency & Economics: Call to Action,” which I assure you will be more interesting than it sounds. Joining me on the panel are Stephen Rannekleiv, Executive Director, Food & Agribusiness Research at Rabobank, and Malcom Preston, Global Head of Sustainability Services at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Chile’s National Wine Fair

Sue and I are looking forward to being at Viña Viñamar, Chile on May 15-16 for the Feira Nacional Vitivinicola.  I will be speaking about Chilean wine on the global stage, which is appropriate given that Chile is such an important wine exporting nation. Chile is hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in 2019 and I expect that the National Wine Fair will take full advantage of this opportunity. The U.K. and U.S. have long been Chile’s top export markets, but China became #1 in 2017.

British Columbia Winegrape Council Conference

I’ve been invited to speak about the economics of sustainable winegrowing at the BC Winegrape Council Enology & Viticulture Conference and Tradeshow in Penticton, British Columbia in July  Sustainability is on everyone’s lips (see climate change conference above), but the transition from theory to practice or talk to action is a challenge. Looking forward to discussing this issue with my BC friends and colleagues.

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Change is the common feature of all these programs. Changing economic conditions, changing market focus (who would have guessed that everyone would be talking about Rosé?), climate change and sustainable practices, and technological change, too. Change is always disruptive and always interesting, too. Hope to see you somewhere along the wine road in 2019.

Fly-over Vineyards: How Climate Change Redraws the Global Wine Map


There has been a lot of buzz about climate change and the future of wine recently, starting with a New York Times article on Sunday and spreading all around the web. Now there is a video to help us envision the research.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so a cool “fly-over” animation like the one at the top of this post must speak volumes (see this article about the video and the research behind it). As you circle the globe in the video, keep these color codes in mind so that you can interpret the images.

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Bear in mind that forecasting is difficult, especially about the future, so projections shouldn’t be confused with fact. But quality wine grapes are sensitive to climate change as this chart from Bemjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths and Realities (see p. 79)  makes clear. Relatively small changes in average temperature can have significant impacts on vineyard patterns and, as the video suggests, the impact varies in different regions.

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While the dramatic changes you see in the video may not happen, they certain could. And some of the possible climate effects go beyond the sort of changes that might be mitigated by adaptations and innovations in viticultural practices.

Food for thought.

The Real Dirt on the Parker Theory and Chateau Al Gore

The new issue of the Journal of Wine Economics (JWE) leads off with a fascinating article by Julian M. Alston, Kate B. Fuller, James T. Lapsley and George Soleas titled “Too Much of a Good Thing? Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes.”  It’s the kind of wine economics research that makes me smile: rigorous, clever, relevant — and it even includes a poem! What could be better!

Demand-Side Explanations: The Parker Theory

The puzzle that the article examines is why sugar levels (measured in degrees Brix) have risen in California, taking wine alcohol levels with them. Sugar levels in white grapes grown in California increased 12% from 1980-84 to 2005-08, for example, with the average degree Brix rising from 20.7 to 23.2. Average Brix for red grape varieties increased from 22.2 degrees Brix to 24.3. Sugar levels in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes increased from 22.8 to 25.0 degrees Brix at harvest.  Higher sugar levels mean higher alcohol levels, all else being equal.

Two simple explanations are usually cited to explain the rising sugar/alcohol trend. The first is based on changes in demand. Robert Parker (and some other powerful wine critics) are said to prefer a certain style of wine that is riper. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased as wine growers have worked to produce the grapes that make the wines that most please the Golden Palate of Robert P. (or that otherwise appeal to changing consumer preferences).

Supply-Side Explanations: Chateau Al Gore

I call the second theory the “Chateau Al Gore” hypothesis because Al Gore is associated in popular culture with global climate change and that’s what this theory is about. Rising temperatures, according to this line of reasoning, produce riper grapes pushing up sugar levels, boosting alcohol.

It is pretty easy to line up facts to make a persuasive case for Chateau Al Gore. Temperatures as measured by a heat index have been rising in California, according to the article’s authors. Sugar and alcohol levels have increased, too. Although additional sugar may be welcome (the Parker principle), there are indications that producers would prefer lower levels. A good deal of wine in California is partially de-alcoholized, for example. Alcohol is removed from a portion of the vintage (using reverse osmosis or the spinning cone method I am told) and then the treated wine is blended back, reducing overall alcohol levels and allowing winemakers the opportunity to find the “sweet spot” alcohol level for their wines.

Some of the de-alcoholization may be motivated by federal taxes, which increase substantially on a per-gallon basis for wines that rise above the 14% ABV level. The extra 50 cents tax per gallon may not concern the makers of expensive wines like Screaming Eagle, but it can be a significant cost factor for bulk producters and thus worth the expense of alcohol reduction. In any case, the authors find that lower-priced grapes tend to have lower average Brix readings, which is consistent with the tax hypothesis but doesn’t prove it.

If alcohol levels of wine have increased even after partial dealcoholization, this suggests that rising sugar levels must be unwanted and this notion is at least partially confirmed by preliminary data reported here that many wineries under-estimate alcohol levels on product labels. The authors have obtained access to data from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (one of the largest wine merchants in the world), which show that the average stated alcohol level of California wine exported to Ontario was 12.63 percent in the sample period while the actual level was 13.35 percent. The gap is clear, but the authors suggest that more work is needed to fully understand it. I’ll be interested to read their final report.

Ceteris Paribus

The Chateau Al Gore theory seems pretty persuasive. Ceteris paribus (holding everything else constant) it makes sense that sugar and alcohol levels would rise with average vineyard temperature. The fact that winemakers work to offset the alcohol boost and maybe fudge it a bit (within legal limits)  on the label suggests that this is a climate change event that they struggle to contain.

But ceteris is seldom really paribus in wine. Employing multi-factor regression analysis, the authors find that the rising heat index is responsible for some of the increase in sugar levels, but not all of it. Put another way, climate factors alone are not sufficient to explain the total increase in sugar and alcohol. Other factors must also be at work.

Which pushes us back to the demand-side Parker Theory, but in a  usefully complicated way. It is important to understand how much the California wine industry has changed in the last 30 years. The type of wine produced has changed, for example, with varietal wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon) increasing faster than production of generic wine (“Chablis,” “Burgundy”). Varietal wines accounted for 71% of California production in 2000, according to the authors, compared to just 19% in 1985.

The move upmarket required different grape varieties of higher quality from different production zones. Thus while total California wine grape production rose by 60% in the survey period, the biggest increase (+185%) was in the Delta region (including the Lodi AVA) with the North Coast (including Napa and Sonoma Valleys) increasing by 128%.  Wine grape production in the San Joaquin Valley rose but by a much smaller amount. The southern San Joaquin valley accounted for just 30% of California vineyard acreage in 2008 (down from 50% in 1981), although it still produced more than 60% of wine grape tonnage because of higher yields.

So wine grape production has increased and also shifted in terms of desired quality, price per ton, grape variety and growing location. It is perhaps not surprising that average sugar levels would change too. Much of the growth in the California wine industry has thus been associated with the demand shift towards premium and ultra-premium wines and the rising sugar levels are to some extent associated with this “grape transformation” of the American palate. Robert Parker is part of this movement although I think it would be unfair to give him all the credit or blame for the changes noted here.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

So the JWE article finds evidence for both the demand-side and supply-side theories of rising sugar levels. But wait, there is more, including rootstocks (this is the “real dirt” in the title of this post).

Phylloxera struck California starting in the mid-1980s when the supposedly Phylloxera resistant AxR#1 rootstock was found to be susceptible to this root-sucking parasite. Eventually nearly all the vines affected were grubbed up and replaced with vines grafted to different (and hopefully more resistant) rootstocks. Several winemakers have suggested to me that the new rootstocks and associated changes in viticultural practices affect grape ripening — sugar levels peak before the desired flavor profile (phenolic ripeness) has been achieved. Longer hang times are needed to get the flavors right,  leaving wine growers with the problem of too much sugar and so forth.

The rootstock hypothesis is beyond the scope of the JWE study, but it indicates how complicated it can be to explain seemingly simple questions in wine economics and how much wine remains an agricultural product after all.

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I don’t think I’ve done justice to this research so I hope you will click on the link in the first paragraph above and read the study yourself.

Asking the Right Questions about Wine

It’s finals week at the University of Puget Sound, so I’m thinking about the question, what wine goes best with final exams and term papers?  A sweet wine, to capture the sweet taste of success?  Some bubbles to celebrate finishing one set of tasks and moving on?  Or maybe a bitter sweet wine, because moving on inevitably means leaving some people and relationships behind?  Hard to figure how best to match a wine with all these emotions. It’s a difficult question.

Dump Bucket Drills

But I know one wine that doesn’t match up very well.  My class on “The Idea of Wine” organized an informal tasting on Monday to celebrate finishing their term papers.  The main project was a blind tasting of inexpensive (some were very inexpensive) Merlots.  I was impressed with the students’ serious efforts to evaluate and score the wine and their recently acquired (and, for college students, somewhat unnatural) propensity to use the dump bucket.

We tasted other wines including a Chinese wine that Brian West personally hauled back from Beijing a few years ago.  It was a 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon.  Changyu is China’s oldest winery and a good example of a mid-market Chinese wine (I wrote about Changyu and the Chinese wine industry in The China Wine Syndrome).

I found a video review of this wine on the web (click here to view it, but be forewarned that there is some harsh language used by the reviewer) that described the wine as being all about ashtray and coffee ground flavors with aromas of urinal crust.  Hard to imagine.  Until you taste it, that is.  The description is right on the money.

I’ve read many optimistic reports on the Chinese wine industry, mostly based on high potential production volumes and not so much on quality.  The quality wasn’t there in 1999, based on this wine, but there is reason to believe that things are changing.  I sure hope they are! The dump bucket got good use on this one.

Hard Heads, Soft Hearts

I’m reading my students’ final papers now – they are quite good, by the way – and I thought you might be interested in their topics.  I gave them great freedom to choose topics that interested them or related to their academic majors.  You can find a list of the paper titles at the end of this post.

Most people think education is about learning the right answers, and this is certainly important, but I think the more valuable skill is learning to ask the right questions, and this is true about wine.  I was impressed by the creativity of the questions my students asked.

One student, a Finance major, asked why Treasury bill auctions and wine auctions have different structures and what the impacts might be? A very interesting theoretical treatment. Another student did fieldwork in three wine retailers to try to understand the actions and interactions of wine buyers and wine sellers. The result was a revealing first person account of wine consumer behavior.  An economics student who grew up in Napa Valley examined issues relating to migrant labor there, combining economic theory, empirical data and personal observation very effectively.

All the papers were very interesting. My favorite title: “How corks are being screwed over” (an analysis of the cork versus screw cap debate).  Imagine, I get paid to read this!

Looking at the list of paper titles, I’m struck by how many students were drawn to issues of sustainable or ethical production and consumption:  organic wine, climate change, biodynamic wine, fair trade wine and so forth.  In general their analysis was thorough, pointed and objective.  They have “soft hearts” and “hard heads,” as Princeton Economist Alan Blinder would say.  They care about social issues, but think about them critically.  Blinder says (and I agree) that’s better than the other possible combinations: soft head/hard heart, soft heart/soft head or hard head and heart.

  • Comparative analysis of changes in Treasury auctions versus global wine auctions
  • An ethnographic study of wine consumer trends
  • Hispanic workers in California’s wine industry
  • Climate Change: what it means for Spanish vineyards.
  • Climate change and the wine industry
  • TetraPaks and cans: the alternative packaging of wine
  • Movement from niche markets to mainstream: prospects and challenges for ethical consumption in the wine market
  • The terroir of equality: fair trade wine
  • Organic wine: the beginning of redefining fine wine
  • Oak in Wine: an exploration into differences.
  • Green wine: ideas and details of sustainable wine
  • Wine’s historical and modern role in religion
  • Of vines and witchcraft: biodynamic wine
  • India’s wine prospects
  • Old world crash: wine’s changing face in the globalized market
  • What makes that bottle so expensive?
  • How corks are being screwed over
  • Aging wines: from barrels to bottles
  • Drowning in the wine lake
  • Wine brands: friend or foe?
  • Wine tourism and economic development
  • Bordeaux versus Burgundy: why the rivalry matters
  • Transitioning wine industries: assessing development strategies in the wine industry

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.]