Where’s the Water in Wine Country?

The Marriage at Cana

Jesus Changes Water Into Wine John 2:1-11 NIV

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman,] why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese

Turning water into wine may have been one of the first displays of Christ’s power, but how vineyards turn the local watershed into their signature product is no great mystery. While wine has become one of the great prides of the Sonoma-Napa Valley, with millions invested in vineyards, wineries, inns, bed and breakfasts, festivals, and boutique experiences catered to the wealthy and intellectual.

To understand the overall issue here, it is helpful to know a few terms about the wine industry and the environment.

Winery: “an establishment where wine is made.” This is different than a vineyard, as the winery is the indoor production center and does not need to be located near the vineyard.

Vineyard: “a plantation of grapevines, typically producing grapes used in winemaking.” This is the farm end of the winemaking process, and can go on for miles looking like this:

Vineyards-napa hill by Levin Simes Abrams

Vintner: “a wine merchant.” This can be one the winery end, or a third party distributor who sells to restaurants, international distribution chains, etc. Key to making money as a winery.

Aquifer: “a body of permeable rock which can contain or transmit groundwater.” These are incredibly useful, natural ways for arid areas like Northern California to maintain a constant access to reserved water.

Watershed: “an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas.” The main watershed under discussion here is the Russian River watershed, which extends through multiple counties before pouring into the ocean.

Russian River Watershed as provided by The Russian River Watershed Association (www.rrwatershed.org)

The Russian River watershed is home to billions of dollars worth of agricultural, tourist, and fishing industries, with it also being the home of the Coho Salmon `run, orchards, Dungeness crab, oysters, redwoods, and hot springs. The maintenance of the watershed not only provides a constant clean water source to the people living in this busy area, but also the many wildlife reserves in the form of state and national parks, the fish in the streams, lakes, and rivers, and the proper constant temperate dryness that allows a sustainable existence to the natural foliage like wildflowers, giant redwoods, and oak trees that are fundamental to the native flora and fauna.

Armstrong Woos State Park
Yellow mustard spring wildflowers in Sonoma County California field with dormant Oak trees (Quercus lobata) by Saxon Holt

Sonoma Coast, California © LOOK Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH / Alamy

These beautiful pictures here aren’t to make any savvy wine drinkers feel guilty for partaking in the region’s namesake, but instead to show that there is much more than simply wine in the area, and how the modern wine industry’s water-guzzling ways are not sustainable at put more than themselves at risk.

The original wine makers (and vineyards) from the area began when Italian immigrants moved first to San Francisco, and then up north where the region is very similar to areas of Southern Italy where a considerable amount of Italian wines and produce come from. Early Italian-American vineyards were side-by-side the wineries processing their grapes, and were also planting vast stone-fruit and apple orchards, as well as walnut groves, in the loamy, un-tilled soil. To this day, some of the first grapevines that were planted are still alive and producing premium grapes at the older wineries in the area. These farmers typically practiced “dry-farming” and did not dig up the vast expanses of land that are in production today.

“old-man” Zinfandel grape vine by Randy Caparoso

The issue at-hand is the over-use of water, especially in techniques that are not necessarily watering the plants, like de-frosting grapes planted too early, so the crop isn’t ruined. This is already a dry part of the world, but before the watershed was pulled in multiple directions with water being channeled to the Central Valley and poured into these wineries with little restraint, there was still enough for everyone. However, it was only after massive flood rains that California left a drought lasting 376 weeks (at the time this assignment began, CA was still in the midst of an 8-year drought).

While the Russian River can sometimes be too low for the Coho salmon spawn, or people in the area are in their sixth year of once-a-week showers, vintners are granted permits to drill the aquifers to draw from the local area’s water source near-without a check. Some citizens even drew lawsuits when they realized their county and the state were continuing to grant permits to nearby vineyards.

Article screenshot from a local paper, this article was published in November, 2016.

While water is understandably the lifeblood of any agricultural region, the water in California has become worth so much that it has reached the notice of major investors, who have bought local vineyards with existing water-drilling rights, and see not just the land but also it’s water as long-term investment. Harvard, while known for its education system, is also one of the largest real-estate investors in the world, and has begun buying land in the area to financially benefit from the water-deprivation vineyards are exacerbating.

While not going unnoticed, the investment purchases are certainly not advertised. Why?

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