March of the Vines: Vineyards are Exploding, But is That Good for Wine Country?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on California wines; some people think they’re insipid and awful, a judgment usually based on the reputation of the early years of the wine industry, and other people think they’re fantastic. In actuality, of course, some vineyards make outstanding, award-winning vintages that rival wines from anywhere else in the world, while others make truly foul concoctions sold in boxes on the shelves of supermarkets. But one thing is undeniable: California has a lot of vineyards, and the state’s wine country is in a steady march of expansion.

Some people regard this as a good thing. The wine industry is tremendously profitable, not just because wine sales can bring in lots of money, but because wine country itself is a major tourist attraction. Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and other counties profit immensely from visitors who come to the region specifically for wine tastings, events at wineries, crush events, and so forth. For revenue-starved counties, the idea of expanding wine country sounds particularly enticing, because it means a better chance at survival, bringing more taxes into county coffers and creating a massive side-industry for restaurants, hotels, and other service-oriented businesses that spring up to support the tourism industry.

Yet, the truth of the wine industry is a bit more complicated than this. I’ve written about forest-to-vineyard conversions in the past and the problem with felling vast swaths of trees to make room for vines, but that’s not the only area where vines are choking out everything else. Wine country is rapidly losing arable land to vines, and that includes farmland as well as other usable land. Further to that, vines are being treated as an investment, which creates the risk of a serious speculative bubble in California that could crash disastrously in the counties that have given themselves over to the industry.

Vineyards replacing older vines that aren’t producing well are simply doing what any agricultural enterprise would do, and ensuring the continued success of their business. On land already converted to a vineyard, one might argue that continuing to grow grapes shouldn’t be a significant problem, even if the sprawl of vines does mean that other agriculture isn’t allowed to flourish. However, vineyards applying for opportunities to expand beyond their borders and snap up land currently unused or dedicated to other uses are another matter.

Diversity is critically important when it comes to anything, and agriculture is no exception. Monocropping is not a good idea economically or agriculturally. From an economic perspective, a monocrop of grapes in California could create a serious economic depression as grape prices plummet and wineries start leaving grapes on the vines because they can’t find sellers, or because it’s more cost-efficient to lose the crop and collect the insurance than it is to pay for harvesting and sell the grapes at a low price. Keep in mind that the people harvesting these grapes and working the vineyards are, as usual with agriculture in the US, primarily undocumented immigrants making subminimum wage, with no protections against agricultural chemicals and other hazards. Remember, California just passed a law mandating access to shade and water for field workers, which should be a basic right, and a law doesn’t always make it so.

Agriculturally speaking, monocropping is a disaster waiting to happen. It destroys the integrity of the soil, making it less productive over time. That forces growers to continuously add amendments in an attempt to get crops flourishing, and many of those growers aren’t bothering to build up the soil to make it truly healthy. The soil never gets a chance to rest, precious topsoil is lost to runoff in storms and heavy weather, and over time, formerly lush, arable farmland rendered so by years of natural events like volcanic eruptions and flooding turns dessicated, crumbly, and useless.

Remember the Dust Bowl? There were a lot of factors involved in the crop failures of the 1930s, but some of those factors were human in nature; farmers didn’t handle their soil responsibly, and consequently, it failed them when they needed it most. Because of their poor soil management, they lost valuable ground, and the same thing is happening and will continue in California because of the way the agriculture industry approaches soil management. Which is to say, it doesn’t: the focus is on crops, not on the soil that supports them.

As the wine industry demands the right to expand, like an octopus creeping across the landscape, there are some serious and legitimate concerns about whether this is a good idea from anyone’s perspective; people seduced by greed often don’t act in their self interest, and wineries are no exception. Companies thinking in the short term believe that planting more vines now will result in bumper crops later, allowing them to take advantage of favourable grape prices. What they’re not thinking about is that everyone else is thinking the same thing, and that a lot of uncontrollable factors come between planting and harvest. Weather, economic downturns, disease, and a host of other potential threats lie between California’s vines and profits.

When we’re pushing out food crops to make way for vines, that also creates a rather dangerous situation that could threaten the state’s food security as well as the agricultural autonomy of smaller California communities. With the local food movement exploding, it’s bizarre to see farms turning into vineyards, forcing communities to source their produce from further and further away.

The profit-based agricultural model, as opposed to one focused on nourishing and community, creates a situation where choices like these are made routinely, even though they compromise land and community. It’s a very capitalist approach to farming and the food system, and it’s a very difficult thing to regulate. In the US, where people believe firmly in the myth of a free market, it’s difficult to impossible to institute regulations to protect natural resources and communities, especially if those regulations appear to infringe on the freedom of capitalism. Wineries wouldn’t take well to being told there’s no more room for expansion, or to having permits to replant denied, which is the only way to bring the industry in check, both for its own good and everyone else.

This is reform that needs to come from within, but is the industry ready for it?