Anyone following news about California’s drought has read about its effect on nation-nourishing crop yields. But what you probably haven’t read is how the drought is impacting the Golden State’s homegrown vices, including wine, pot, and craft beer—and how their industries are affecting the state in return.
Today at Nautilus, Jon Kelvey investigates how California’s “trinity of vices” draw from the state’s water supply, and how each industry is adapting not only to the drought, but the possibility that the region’s arid conditions will extend into the foreseeable future.
Kelvey reports that pot, for example, demands the most of California’s limping water system. (This in addition to longstanding criticisms that the state’s marijuana crops threaten forests and wildlife.) He cites a recent study, conducted by the California Department of fish and Wildlife, that “concluded that the demand for water to grow pot is greater than the total amount of water in the streams of some watersheds during the dry season, presenting a potentially lethal threat to salmon and steelhead trout.” Weed’s thirst for water is so intense, that the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board may soon propose regulatory measures that would require pot growers to participate in a water-use permit system, though “with marijuana still illegal under federal law, it could be difficult to enroll growers.”
Craft beer, by comparison, sources the majority of its grains and hops from outside the state, which slashes its water requirements considerably. What water the industry does use—for malting, brewing, and cleaning—amounts to just 93-million gallons per annum, a meager demand that Kelvey contrasts with that of the state’s widely maligned almond crop:
[93-million gallons of water a year is] equivalent to the water used by 12,000 people or 640 acres of almonds. Put in context, there are more than 800,000 acres of almonds being grown in the Golden state, making the entire California beer industry’s water needs a mere drop in the ocean reserved for nuts.
And one of Kelvey’s more interesting findings has to do with the disparate fates of California’s high- and low-end wine producers. Apparently, the last few years of drought have actually been a benefit to the former, who reportedly prize the finer, more concentrated flavors that result from dry conditions. Many viticulturists, in other words, want their vines dry. “If that happens naturally,” P.J. Alviso, director of estate viticulture at Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Wine Company, told Kelvey, “we don’t necessarily see that as a negative.”
Meanwhile, producers of cheaper bulk wines, especially those in the scorched Central Valley, may soon find “quantity over quality” a business model ill-suited to the state’s water crisis:
Not only is water more scarce in the Central Valley to begin with, but the operations there are looking to increase rather than decrease their water supply. Growers that produce grapes for cheap wines aren’t interested in concentration and perfect ripeness, but in growing the most grapes possible. In 2005 Central Valley vineyards produced an average of 12 tons of grapes per acre, according to theCalifornia Agriculture journal, while ritzier North Coast vineyards had only 4 tons per acres. When growing for cheaper wines, “you want to be as big and plump and juicy as possible, where we are coming at the other end,” says Alviso.
If the drought continues, it will be the purveyors of jug wines and other inexpensive labels on the bottom shelf that will suffer the most as their production levels fall. At the same time, it may be a boon to consumers, who could get a significantly more flavorful wine for a few dollars more.
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