As water becomes more scarce, the wine industry will come under more and more pressure to stop irrigating and move towards completely sustainable water management and usage. Linda Johnson-Bell is a wine author and critic who sees the writing on the wall for producers who tap water supplies to irrigate what is essentially a luxury product.

A good example of this is the court case in California where a vineyard company owned by the Harvard Endowment Fund is being sued by agricultural neighbours for buying up rights to use ground water ponds to irrigate their vines. One of the plaintiffs in the case is actually a wine producer using Dry Farming techniques. 

 

LindaJB

As water becomes more scarce, the wine industry will come under more and more pressure to stop irrigating and move towards completely sustainable water management and usage. Linda Johnson-Bell is a wine author and critic who sees the writing on the wall for producers who tap water supplies to irrigate what is essentially a luxury product.

A good example of this is the court case in California where a vineyard company owned by the Harvard Endowment Fund is being sued by agricultural neighbours for buying up rights to use ground water ponds to irrigate their vines. One of the plaintiffs in the case is actually a wine producer using Dry Farming techniques. 

In a region where the multiyear drought is already severe, mismanaging the finite water supplies could have disastrous impacts for communities trying to adapt to the hotter climate.

Johnson-Bell is looking at how vineyards can increase sustainability by a process known as dry-farming; a practice not suitable in all locations. Here she explains why she is sure that the tough conversations around water usage are only just beginning.

Nick Breeze: can you talk about the current state of water usage in the wine industry and what is right or wrong with it?

Linda Johnson-Bell: What is right or wrong with it is that at the moment 83% of the vines that are planted are being irrigated in the world. Most of those are in the new world and 10% are in the old world.

With increasing drought and increasing heat, people are increasing irrigation. So while irrigation is adaptations greatest ally, it is mitigations greatest foe! So they are shooting themselves in the foot and they don’t quite know it.

The water situation is dire and an example of that is the EU water laws because, as you know, it is illegal to irrigate in Europe for qualitative and quantitative reasons but the EU laws are relaxing a bit in terms of irrigation laws.

They are still intact, I would say, for the top quality levels but some of the lower levels are allowed to start irrigating at certain times. Again it has not been implemented very well. It is not giving the wine producer very much control over their own scheduling but one thing they have gotten right in a most recent decree in 2017, is that they are now saying that if you do irrigate, you are not allowed to go above the old restricted yields.

Dry farmers can go above the old fashioned yield caps which I think it is a really interesting compromise.

Nick Breeze: Can you give us an overview of what dry farming really is?

Linda Johnson-Bell: Dry farming is a practice. It is a way to hold the winter rainfall in the soil so that the farmer can use it during the growing season. Not everyone can do it. Ideally, you want between 9 and 20 inches of rainfall throughout the year.

I have spoken to farmers who do it with less than that. It also has tone married with the correct soil type. You want soils that retain water. Sandy loam might be nice but clay not. The real trick is soil preparation. 

A lot of people who say dry farming is a bother, they start pointing towards the soil preparation and having to keep the mulch applied to keep the moisture in. You are allowed to water for the first couple of years to get the planting started but if you think of the alternatives, you don’t have any irrigation systems to install, you don’t have any maintenance, you don’t have any costs, and with all the legislation coming in, you don’t have the water certificates to buy, the water licenses to buy, it is a no-brainer. 

Nick Breeze: You say it is a no-brainer but you said something quite key there which is that not everybody can do it…

Linda Johnson-Bell: Because they may not have the right soil type or the rainfall. 

Nick Breeze: That makes it a very difficult conversation?

Linda Johnson-Bell: It makes it a very painful conversation but the world wine map is shifting anyway. If we don’t push dry farming as the international default position, mother nature is going to have it happen anyway.

Even if you don’t believe that irrigation dilutes terroir, you know, by having the root mass on the top, even if you don’t believe that irrigation changes the microbiology of the soil, and plus effects the taste of the grape and the wine, even if you don’t believe that it artificially increases yields, the argument that there is not enough water left to irrigate a luxury crop, stands alone.

You don’t even have to believe in the science behind what irrigation does to our soil and to the wine. You just look at the numbers. You should not be watering a luxury crop. We should not be putting chardonnay before wheat or livestock. In the wine industry, we are so understandably enclosed in our little world. We have to get out of this mindset and put ourselves in a much larger context. Wine is a crop. We have to make that connection.

Nick Breeze: On a global scale how many people are using this dry farming method right now?

Linda Johnson-Bell: A lot and that again is one of my favourite arguments that I am allowed to use in favour of dry farming, is that we have farmers in the most arid areas of the world showing us that is can be done.

We have got in Swartland in South Africa, a huge community who dry farm. You have got a community in Oregon who only dry farm. I met people in India yesterday who came up to me and said, “Oh, you spoke to my heart, that is what we do in India!”, in Israel, in Lebanon, in Napa Valley.

Nick Breeze: So what are the next steps going forward from here?

Linda Johnson-Bell: The next step for me is to sit down with my little team and figure out the next three or four outputs we want. I have been so busy in the last three or four years speaking and researching and writing, I want to actually now come out with some tools. I would like to come up with a transitioning package, methodology that can be transposed into different regions around the world.

So I am looking to get some funding and some partners together, a mall team, and come up with some really useful outputs!

[End]

Linda Johnson-Bell (AKA The Wine Lady) has written several books and is currently writing a book titled 'Blind Drunk: Wine or water?'

 * I shared this article on the Reddit wine group and received a number of responses. Read them here.

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