How “Sustainable” Is the Wine Industry in California’s Sonoma County?

Sonoma County Winegrowers bought an expensive, full-page, color ad, using tax dollars, this July in the daily Santa Rosa Press Democrat and in various weeklies. It ignited a firestorm of protest with angry letters to editors and online comments storming publications that ran it.

The ad, which ran on July 12, claims that the industry is “sustainable” and “growing a better place to live, work and play.” It offers no proof or third party verification by an independent agency not employed by the wine industry.

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

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.

The Winegrowers spray poisonous chemicals. 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.

Big Wine does not treat or pay its workers living wages. The ad shows spotless white hands. Yet most of the real growing is done by Latinos and other workers of color who work with their hands in the soil.

These so-called “winegrowers” are often merely managers, with some notable exceptions among the few remaining 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 the majority of the wine production.

Wine industry lobbyists and PR people present the industry as mainly small mom and pop operations, which 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.

A visual parody of the ad by artist Perro Aulando was posted on 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.”

Big Wine does not follow lax rules regulating it. For example, Napa County’s Joe Wagner wants to locate a huge Dairyman Winery and Event Center in SonomaCounty’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 does not aggressively deal with permit violators who run more events than permitted, and those putting in vineyards without permits,” notes Padi Selwyn of Preserve Rural Sonoma County. “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 commercial water users are exempt.”

The wine industry used to be 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.

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

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

“Sustainable?” Not really.