Turning (Less) Water into Wine

By Lindsay Bass

In 2014, a small winery in the central coast of California experienced a dramatic reduction in the flow of its groundwater wells, severely limiting the amount of water available for production, and threatening the viability of the entire operation.

At the time, the winery — along with the rest of California – was experiencing its third straight year of drought. With water resources already scarce, the severe reduction in available water could have been a disaster for the winery, as well as its employees and business partners, many of whom are residents of the surrounding Paicines community. Instead, the winery decided to embark on a new journey of water stewardship.

Although the Blossom Hill Winery was focused on its environmental impact for some time, this was a wake-up call, and sparked a movement to become more organized and prioritize their water stewardship work. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) collaborated on this journey to help Blossom Hill, a property of Diageo Chateau and Estate Wines, become the first winery in the world to pilot elements of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard.

“For many years, all the way back to 2006, we’ve been monitoring and measuring our water and making improvements,” said Julie Collins, environmental risk manager for Diageo. “But the drought has taken us to a whole new level.”

The AWS framework recognized the previous work Diageo had done on water, but also identified gaps and opportunities where more could be done. Implemented changes ranged from the easy – using brooms to sweep floors instead of washing them with water; switching from 2-inch to 1-inch hoses; reusing the water used to clean tanks to wash floors – to the complex. In the vineyard, for example, Blossom Hill targets water use to the needs of the vine. Sensors in the soil monitor moisture levels. When water is needed, the drip irrigation system is triggered to supply only as much water as the monitors indicate is needed. Therefore, instead of just watering for a set time, increased attention is given to the specific vines in order to determine if it needs water or not.

But one of the most revolutionary changes that Diageo and the winery made – and a key part of the AWS framework – is a culture shift around water. Water efficiency isn’t just a box to tick; it’s become a central focus of the organization. The staff at Blossom Hill created a “Blue Team” consisting of employees from all levels, who meet regularly to discuss water usage, identify problems, and come up with solutions.

“I can focus on saving water but I’m not doing the job every day,” explained Wayne Childress, director of operations at Blossom Hill. “The person who does the job needs to have that focus, and that’s what we’ve tried to change.”

The Blue Team has also created ambassadors who can reach out to the local community about the importance of saving water, working with local farmers and businesses to share success stories and challenges. While this may not be a traditional model of corporate-community outreach, the local, neighborly approach works well in the small agriculture-dominated town. The AWS framework highlights the importance of “talking” along with “doing,” because watersheds can’t be protected by a single user alone, no matter how much work they do inside their fence lines.

The changes Blossom Hill has made around their water usage will continue long after the California drought ends. The winery is using significantly less water while maintaining production levels and high quality standards. They have engaged their community on water, raising awareness amongst the many different people who share the same water source. In times of water crisis, these measures have proven essential.

While the drought in California will certainly end, the experience has taught Blossom Hill and other industries in the area that water is a precious, finite and shared resource, and that it can only be secure if all users work together. Collective action and sustainable management of water by all in the watershed is what will ensure that the winery — and its neighbors — are still thriving 25, 50, or even 100 years from now.

Photo and video courtesy of Blossom Hill Wines

Lindsay Bass is manager of corporate water stewardship for WWF.

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