California’s Wine Industry: Just How “Sustainable” Is It?

Sonoma County Winegrowers bought an expensive, full-page, color ad, using tax dollars, in the July 12 daily Santa Rosa Press Democrat and in various weeklies, such as the North Bay Bohemian and Sonoma West. The ad ignited a firestorm of protest with angry letters to editors and online comments from the community storming local publications that ran the ad.

As someone who practices, writes about, and teaches college students at Sonoma State and Dominican Universities about what “sustainable” really means, the ad offends me. It is blatant propaganda of false advertising to hoodwink readers.

Winegrowers received a $377,282 federal grant in 2014 for their “branding campaign.” That followed a state grant that brought their total to $756,000, according to the North Bay Business Journal. The fact that tax payer dollars funded the wine industry’s Public Relations campaign hit a sensitive nerve county-wide, a nerve already frayed by the overdevelopment of wineries as event centers hosting weddings and entertainment unrelated to wine. This changes the face of this once bucolic region. (A copy of the ad can be requested from the Winegrowers at share@sonomawinegrowers.org, where readers can also send responses.)

The glossy ad offers no proof or third party verification of their alleged sustainability. The Winegrowers self-regulate, thus co-opting and green-washing the word, like a fox guarding the chicken coop. To be “sustainable” requires having a triple bottom line: profit, environmental protection, and social justice.

The Wine Empire is certainly profitable, for a few. It’s all about money. It cuts off hilltops, converts redwood forests, oak woodlands, and apple orchards into regimented, industrial mono-crop rows, which is not nature’s way. It leaves a path of destruction. It fences out wildlife, poisons bees and other critters, leaves the soil naked, and hoards water—not very environmental.

Big Wine does not treat or pay its workers living wages. The ad shows clean, white hands. Yet most of the real growing is done by Latinos with brown skin and other workers of color, with soil often further darkening their working hands.

These so-called “winegrowers” are often merely managers, with some notable exceptions among the few real small family vineyards left that are truly sustainable. Their practices include things such as dry farming, cover crops, and vineyards within a diverse ag and natural environment.


The wine may be “world-class,” as claimed. Wall Street and foreign investors own most of it, so most money leaves the county. Multi-national alcohol corporations—like Altira, Brown-Forman, Constellation, and The Wine Group—own much of the wine production.

Wine industry lobbyists and PR people present the industry as mainly small mom and pop operations is a lie. “The Myth of the Family Winery: Global Corporations Behind California Wine” by the Marin Institute documents this ownership. “Preserving local agriculture,” the ad claims. This study reveals how they preserve agri-business.

“Nearly all the leading wine producers in California are massive corporations integrated with ‘Big Alcohol,’ multinational conglomerates promoting and controlling politics in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.,” the study opens.

“We’re growing a better place for us all to live, work, and play,” the ad deceptively claims. Meanwhile, they spray poisonous chemicals, without even informing neighbors. They crowd narrow, rural roads with tipsy drivers. They dig 1000-foot wells and take as much water from streams as they want, even during the drought, sometimes drying up neighbor’s wells. Big Ag does not have to conserve, like the rest of us.

A visual parody of the ad by artist Perro Aulando was posted on Waccobb.net. It includes the following words: “Our marketing hype is so slick, you’ll think you’re saving the planet while our chainsaws, agrichemicals, and pumps destroy whatever we haven’t already.”

Aulando suggests a campaign “to heap scorn and ridicule on the most egregious examples of green-washing and tourism uber-hype.” It could use “adbuster-style tactics and humor to undermine.”


On the day that the ads appeared, letters to editors and online comments by irate residents began flooding in. The wine industry used to be seen as Sonoma County’s darling industry, because of its economic benefits. In recent months Big Wine has been compared in articles to Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Tobacco, because of its unethical practices.

“The culprits who get off scot free are our county leaders from the Supervisors on down through the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Permit and Resource Management Department.  A sustainability problem is that leaders in the planning areas don’t even think about sustainability. They only see a stream of tax dollars and campaign contributions,” commented Reuben Weinzveg of Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC), a grassroots organization that challenges new winery projects in rural areas.

Wineries pave over productive ag land for their event centers. They build large parking lots to accommodate weddings and other entertainment events. But wait, this is on land zoned exclusively for ag., where they are not supposed to have commercial kitchens. The ag component of this new business model is minimal, compared to the industrial and commercial elements needed to process the grapes and water into wine.

“Some local vintners play by the rules and strive to be good stewards of our land and environment. The backlash is about the ‘bad apples’ in the industry, as well as the County of Sonoma that continually approves more and more wineries, expansions, and event centers. We have nearly 600 wineries here, and the community thinks that is enough to maintain a vibrant tourist economy,” says Padi Selwyn, PRSC Co-chair,

“Sustainability is an empty word,” writes investigative reporter Will Parrish. He has covered the North Coast wine industry for a least a decade for the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) in Mendocino County, the next county north of Sonoma. He also keynoted two of the five monthly Four County Network gatherings, published the cover story “Turning Water into Wine” in the May 27 East Bay Express, expanding the issue into a regional concern. Parrish was also interviewed on Pacifica radio’s KPFA, which reaches throughout California.

“In adopting new ‘sustainable’ practices, their political focuses are to protect their image and circumvent regulation” Parrish added. “There are almost no regulations on their water use, none on felling oak woodlands, and extremely little monitoring of pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide use — all by design and a consequence of the industry’s political power.”


Big Wine does not follow the lax rules regulating it. For example, Napa County’s Joe Wagner wants to locate a huge Dairyman Winery and Event Center in Sonoma County’s fragile Laguna de Santa Rosa. The Wagners settled with Napa in 2013 for $1 million for violating permits by bottling 20 times as much as they were allowed.

“The County is not aggressively dealing with permit violators who are running more events than permitted, and those putting in vineyards without permits,” notes PRSC’s Selwyn. “90% of wineries are in the rural areas of Sonoma County, which is being seriously impacted with traffic, safety, and water issues. The local Water Quality Control Board has demanded that property owners curtail their water use in the rural west county, while vineyards, wineries and other and commercial water users are exempt.  People don’t mind making some sacrifices during the drought, but they are furious that the really big water users can continue to deplete the water table and take what they want.”

“I looked up water use by the Sonoma Grape Growers on the University of California Davis site,” wrote Hilary Avalon of the Watertrough Children’s Alliance (WCA) in the Sebastopol countryside. “They said 1400-1700 gallons per vine for irrigation for the season. Vineyards have between 566 and 2723 vines per acre, depending on spacing. This translates to between 99,050 and 578,637 gallons of water per month per acre.”

“Frost protection on the 68,000 acres of grapes in Sonoma County would use 1,700,000 gallons of water in one 8-hour period,” Avalon added. “With no controls and their evident lack of regard for anything but their vines, wines and profit, this is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.”

Wineries also use water for many other purposes, including cleaning equipment, toilets, and commercial kitchens, which are not permitted in areas zoned for ag. Estimates are that it takes around 30 gallons of water to make one glass of wine.

Napa Valley used to be America’s premier wine-growing area, but some of their vintners have been moving into the much larger Sonoma County recently, such as “bad apple” Paul Hobbs. The WCA has been fighting him after he broke laws to put in a vineyard in the Sebastopol countryside bordering on schools with over 500 children. Mendocino and Lake Counties risk colonization by the Wine Empire.

There’s no teeth to what they describe as “sustainable.” That’s why a growing chorus of neighbors are lifting their voices as individuals and in groups such as PRSC, Napa Vision 2050, and Four County Network against the Wine Empire’s multiple abuses of the land, water, air, and people.

This ad is a classic propaganda piece with its biased, false, exaggerated, and misleading claims. Sustainability is not all economics; it must include ethics and truth-telling. The wine industry does provide some benefits, but the costs outweigh them.

“Sustainable?” Not really. I challenge the Winegrowers to a public discussion on sustainability. Let’s have a panel and talk openly about it.

More articles by:

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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