Where does Communion wine come from? Part 3 of 4

Part III: Spotlight on the Central Valley

The Central Valley is the source of most of the grapes that go into mass produced California-labelled wines. The vast majority of grapes in the Central Valley are produced by large growers who then sell their grapes to various winemaking companies. While there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, churning out all of these grapes year after year is taking a heavy toll on the environment. The Central Valley as a whole is very dry and hot, and has gotten drier still because of the current drought. Keeping these vines alive and producing grapes requires a massive amount of irrigation — often accompanied by large doses of herbicides and pesticides. 

Because of the severe drought in California in recent years, more and more of these bulk growers have resorted to drilling wells down to the water table in order to feed their vines. One of the results has been that the San Joaquin valley, the southern part of the Central Valley (extending from Sacramento to Bakersfield), is sinking. Until 2014, California had no laws regulating the amount of water private owners could draw via wells from the underground aquifer. The new regulations require local areas to draw up sustainability plans by 2020, so it remains to be seen whether these new regulations will prove successful in addressing this issue.

The future of viticulture in the Central Valley rests on a transition to vine rootstock and grape varieties that can withstand the hot, dry climate. Chenin Blanc and Colombard —  two of the varieties used in Mont La Salle’s wines and also components in many bulk wines — are relatively drought-resistant. However, in the Central Valley these vines are commonly heavily irrigated in an effort to produce extremely high yields of bulk wine, so the overall environmental impact is mixed. 

In the long term, to become environmentally sustainable growers will need to switch to Spanish and southern Italian grapes such as Vermentino, Garnacha (or Grenache), and Nero d’Avola instead of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay. However, these alternative varieties have so far garnered little traction in the primary market as producers and consumers continue to bury their heads in what is literally becoming sand. 

Another serious concern with current practices is the use of herbicides and pesticides in the vineyards and the impacts these pesticides have on the surrounding communities. The Central Valley is not alone in its use of these herbicides and pesticides, but because of the sheer scale of wine grape production is the greatest user among in California. A recent study by the California Environmental Health Tracking Program (CEHTP) found that Fresno county had 131 public schools within a quarter mile of farms that used pesticides potentially dangerous to human health, while in Tulare county 63.4% of public schools were located near these farms. Both of these counties are in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. One parent mentioned that her children sometimes smelled pesticides at their school located near a vineyard.

The writers of CEHTP study state that their work is not showing that schoolchildren are being exposed to pesticides nor that these pesticides are harmful to human health. However, a few recent cases in Bordeaux, France, may lead one to worry. Last year French authorities issued a report that suggested the abnormally high rate of childhood cancer in one village in Sauternes may be due to the pesticide usage in the surrounding vineyards. This report follows several cases in French court concerning the death of grape growers due to pesticide usage. Earlier this year a documentary uncovered that Bordeaux was among the highest users of pesticides in France.

Nobody knows if the pesticide use in California is harming the health of the people who live and work there; the research hasn’t been done. California has different rules and regulations than Bordeaux regarding the use of pesticides, and California and Bordeaux have very different climates. However, the fact that no one knows and that no one has bothered to investigate is concerning, particularly since 90% of the children in these schools identified above are Hispanic. Many of their parents are migrant farmworkers who have limited political and economic influence, and are thus all the more vulnerable. 

The exact sources of the grapes used at Mont La Salle is proprietary information, which is a common practice for many who source grapes from the Central Valley. Almost all growers in the Central Valley are to a greater or lesser extent part of this system of heavy irrigation, heavy herbicide and pesticide use. Most laugh at the idea of dry-farming vines or practicing organic or biodynamic viticulture. On a large scale, this system is destructive to the environment. However, it does ensure that the price that one pays for a bottle of wine is within the range of what most churches are willing to pay for their communion wine.

This is at the heart of the matter: While a higher price does not necessarily mean that a wine in produced in an environmentally sustainable manner (see the example of Bordeaux above), wine that is produced in a sustainable manner — whether card-carrying members of the organic or natural wine movements or not — tend to cost over $10 a bottle and come from smaller producers. These wines may be harder to find, and they may cost more, but it’s a sacrifice worth making. By supporting winemakers and growers who make an effort to produce sustainable wines, consumers can pressure the industry to change. The wine will probably taste better too. 

Graphic: Vrysxy, Wikimedia Commons, CC-ASA-4.0