Worldwide Wine Glut Puts California Wineries at Risk
Worldwide Wine Glut Puts California Wineries at Risk
Or Learning our Lessons about Gold Rushes
By Patricia Dines
Sonoma Valley Voice, December 2003
(c) Patricia Dines, 2003. All rights reserved.
A news item from the Quarterly Wine Review (QRW) recently caught my eye. "The California wine industry is in its worst slump in ten years," it said, "because of a worldwide wine glut and flat consumption, after a decade of unprecedented expansion, which saw the number of wineries in California grow from 600 to 900. Unfortunately," it continued, "over-production ... aggressive foreign competition ... and a languid economy have all conspired to take the bloom off the rose. If the trend continues, say experts, scores of California wineries - perhaps as many as 200 - could go out of business or be sold off to larger operations."
It's not a pretty prospect. What I find most striking is the passive language that describes this turn of events, as if we were powerless to resist external forces conspiring to ruin our pretty rose. Yet, right there in the text, is a clear cause and effect.
It's basic economics that rapidly expanding supply (e.g. wineries) will likely cause overproduction and winery closures - unless demand increases, which there was no indication would happen and hasn't. But this fact was ignored in the go-go days of winery expansion, as many wineries and farmers planted and expanded vineyards, hoping to cash in. And yes, like an alcohol high, it can be exciting to join the gold rush, to reach for dreams. But, if we don't want a hangover to follow, we need to also stay connected to reality, and hear the possible negatives and impacts on others. Because here in the real world the dark side of these manias can have real consequences.
This is not just a theoretical issue for me, because I live in Sonoma County, in the heart of "Wine Country." And it broke my heart in the late 1990s to see acres of wild forest ripped from the earth, replaced by tall fences and stark rows of white grapevine crosses, scattering the deer and squirrels from their homes. It was even harder knowing that this was a boom and there would be a bust, and all this cost would be for naught. And I do understand that farmers and vineyard owners want to make a living, align with trends, and continue local agriculture. My concern is when the line is crossed - when basic logic (and the earth) is thrown to the wind, and the risks are not treated with respect. At the time, environmentalists like myself gathered together and raised their voices in concern. Some spoke eloquently to groups and in articles about the downsides of the boom times. They looked at current laws to see what might help protect the forests, water tables, and land - and found little help. For instance, they found that regulations controlling how a forest could be cut down for lumber didn't apply to the very same forest being cut down for a vineyard. And some small positive steps were implemented, like the Vineyard Erosion Control Ordinance. But environmentalists concerns were largely steamrolled by the crowd only wanting to hear happy talk, not about the likely risks or harm to others.
So now that the predicted crash has arrived, I think its important to see the real story here, for three reasons:
(1) To name the real consequences of this vineyard expansion, the real cause-and-effect. The distant view sees this as just a market correction, but here on the ground, the forests are still and forever lost, the water tables are still depleted, and the well-being of long-standing wineries are threatened. The money moves on, but leaves detritus in its wake....
(2) To encourage us to learn our lessons for the next mania, the next gold rush mining fools gold. So that, when the euphoria starts, we'll look not just at the dreams but also at the risks hiding in the shadows, not only to ourselves, but to others who might be impacted by our choices.
(3) To encourage environmentalists to use this story as an example of how bubbles do burst, highlighting what it looked like before and after. And, in telling this story, let's talk not only about the loss of forest habitat, but also about the basic economics of supply and demand and how a crash can hurt everyone in a market, even those not swept up in the mania.
And, on a broader level, perhaps telling the real story of boom-and-busts like this one can help our culture start to see the deeper, more systemic mania that were foolishly following - that of making money by consuming nature without ensuring its long-term sustainability. Because our true survival isn't from money - it's from nature, which provides the air, water, and food we all require (not to mention spiritual nurturance). Its delusional to think we can destroy nature without impacting ourselves. Already we're starting to see ecosystems collapsing worldwide, risking a bust far surpassing one of mere economics.
By telling the true stories, perhaps our culture can finally use our intelligence to survive in alliance with, not defiance of, the many blessings of the natural world.
Patricia Dines is a Sonoma County writer and graphic artist.
(c) Copyright Patricia Dines, 2003. All rights reserved.

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