MOG Blog

Water Insights from the ASEV Conference
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The American Society for Enology and Viticulture’s national conference a few weeks ago included a one-day symposium on water management in California vineyards. Several speakers described interesting research and new technology that likely will help growers in the near future use much less water by using it much more efficiently. (You can read my article on the keynote address from the conference by clicking here.)

This past winter’s El Nino was expected to be the long awaited end to California’s drought, but that doesn’t appear to have happened. While the situation is much improved here in the North Coast, the Central Coast and southern interior is still in “extreme drought,” according to the national drought monitor

But even if El Nino had solved the state’s water worries, California’s wine industry will continue to have to do more with less when it comes to water. The state likely isn’t going to a see corresponding increase in supply as demand and water use regulations increase. Be it from natural or man-made reasons (or really because of both) growers and winemakers will both have to learn to better use and conserve water.

Lessons from Australia
One wine producing nation that endured years of drought is Australia, and the water symposium included presentations by Mike McCarthy, principal scientist with the South Australian Research Development Institute. McCarthy discussed how growers in Australia dealt with a severe drought through the first decade of the 2000s.

In 2006 growers saw their allocation of Murray River water cut to 60% of normal and then it was just 5% of normal the next year. Unlike in California, growers in Australia don’t typically have access to groundwater and those who can pump are closely monitored by the government. “They couldn’t turn on the pumps and pump out underground water,” he said.

Growers than had to become judicious and prudent in deciding how to use their limited supply of water through the growing year. Some of the tips McCarthy offered on surviving an extended drought included avoiding short, frequent irrigations and any water stress during flowering. Irrigating past the known root zone didn’t seem to help and any crop reductions should be done early. McCarthy said if the vines are growing, don’t add water. “That bit of advice was a real revelation to a lot of growers,” he said.

He described one study to determine if subsurface irrigation was any better than standard drip or fabric coated drip lines. The five-year study eventually found “no advantage whatsoever in switching to subsurface irrigation.”

Another technique that showed promise was spreading mulch beneath vines. McCarthy said vineyards with mulch amendments produced higher yields and required less water. The vines ripened a bit slower, but that could be of benefit as ripening is occurring earlier around the world. “With global warming you get more and more vintage compression,” he said. “A delay in maturity for those guys was actually an advantage.”

Better water use in the winery
Later in the conference, an industry seminar focused on the use of water in the winery. Dr. Roger Boulton with the University of California, Davis, described the school’s highly efficient winery that employs the latest in sustainable technology and which has been well covered in the pages of Wines & Vines. (You can find one feature story about the winery here.)

Boulton later told me, that the winery has not suffered from lack of water due to the lack of winter rains because it was built with sufficient storage to ride out any dry winter months.

He also expressed to the audience, that water conservation first starts with a hard look at one’s winemaking process. A typical white wine may be produced with seven tank or barrel transfers, each requiring water intensive washing and sanitizing. “Can you move to three transfers,” he asked. “What do you need to do that?”

Chris Rogers, with the sustainability consultancy Antea Group, discussed the work of the Beverage Industry Roundtable Group that promotes sustainability in the global beverage industry. He said the group offers a benchmark report on water and energy use in the beverage sector and other information to help beverage producers. One subject the group is currently exploring is how facilities affect their local watersheds. He said if a company is one of the top ten uses of the water from the watershed they should be actively involved in helping to ensure its sustainably managed. “For every dependency and impact there should be an equal and opposite action or expectation of that facility,” he said.

Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp, sustainability manager for Sonoma County’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery, has been analyzing how the company, which produces around 1.6 million cases of wine per year, can save as much water as possible. “Water is like the lifeblood of the winery, it’s impossible to do almost anything in the winery without water,” he said.

While it may be invaluable, Schreiber-Stainthorp said he has determined the average cost per gallon (just the commodity cost, not including labor or other costs) comes to around 2 cents. Using that metric, Schreiber-Stainthorp says he’s been able to price out the benefits and drawbacks of certain operations. The price per gallon is a tool, but not a true reflection of the value of water. “This doesn’t represent how valuable water is to us.”

He said the first step for any winery is to create an accurate picture of total winery water use through an entire year. Coppola is equipped with automatic water meters throughout the winery and this meter data is complemented with a detailed diagram of how water is used and flows through the winery. Smaller, ultrasonic water meters (which he said are free from the Californian utility Pacific Gas & Electric) provide “bottom up” data on specific operations such as washing barrels or even pushing wine through hoses.

Water data can then be matched with sanitation records to see just how effective a particular process is and if it’s water efficient. Schreiber-Stainthorp said based on the analysis, the winery has switched from sodium based sanitizers to potassium based ones. “We’ve seen a small cost increase but this dramatically reduced the salt in our wastewater,” he said.

That wastewater than undergoes a sophisticated treatment so it can be used again as irrigation water for vineyards near the winery. (Read more about that system by clicking here.)

Other steps to reduce water use Schreiber-Stainthorp said the winery is evaluating include exploring “greener” cleaning chemistry, a mobile tank washer that can capture and reuse the caustic rinse solution, in-line blending, high efficiency barrel washers and waterless sanitizing systems like the new BlueMorph device. He said such techniques and technology can improve not just water use but the bottom line for all winery operations. “It’s not just water savings but understanding process operations efficiencies throughout.”

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