There Will Be Wine

Written by Michael Slenske Category: Valley News Issue: October 2012
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Something similar is happening in southern Arizona wine country, where the water table has dropped precipitously over the past 30 years. The most obvious culprit would seem to be the Arizona wine industry itself. Thirty years ago, there was a single wine grower in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties. There are now about 40, including such large-volume labels as Arizona Stronghold and Callaghan. Open-and-shut water-shortage-case, right?

Not exactly. Blessed with a drought-resistant and lucrative crop, vintners say they may actually hold a sustainable long-term solution to the region’s water-table woes – at least relative to such water-hogging crops as cotton and alfalfa.

“I’m not knocking cotton,” Dos Cabezas Wineworks owner Todd Bostock says. “I wear it all the time, but if you’re talking about managing your resources, our industry has really great potential.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources’ May 2012 Statewide Hydrologic Monitoring Report concluded that 65 percent of the state’s wells have been in decline since the 1980s. The problem is particularly pronounced in the agricultural hotbeds of Sonoita and Willcox, where the water table has dropped more than 50 feet since 1995 – about 25 feet more than the state average. Locals attribute the phenomenon to an explosion in subsidy-crop farming in Arizona. Between 1995 and 2011, southern Arizona accounted for half a billion dollars in federal farm subsidies, with more than $104 million going to Cochise County alone to prop up water-hungry crops.

Non-subsidized farms can’t keep up. Mark Spencer, an alfalfa farmer-turned-private pilot, sold his three-pivot farm to a Mennonite family last year because he couldn’t handle the water costs of an operation that used 1,200 gallons of water per minute, per pivot, round-the-clock, for six months a year. “Farmers don’t want you to know those [figures],” he says. “Trust me.”

Conversely, grapevines often thrive in adverse climates, producing a sweeter, richer fruit. Additionally, the water requirements of a vineyard are negligible compared to many crops. Modern wineries using subterranean drip lines that don’t lose water to evaporation consume about 12,000 gallons per week over one acre – a fraction of those 1,200-gallon-a-minute alfalfa farms.  

The rewards, like the heat-tested grapes, are dense. According to the EPA, cotton typically yields a $325 per acre crop value, while corn rates $280 per acre. By comparison, the 240 cases of wine Bostock extracts from an acre of grapevines represent a $72,000 retail value. And 90 percent of that is sold in-state.

“It’s about how much money stays in the community per dollar spent,” Bostock says. “For the vineyards, people will come stay in a hotel, eat in a restaurant, buy a bottle of wine. How many people make a pilgrimage to see where their T-shirt was made?”

Though Bostock hasn’t personally felt the pinch of water shortages, other winegrowers haven’t been so lucky. Arizona Stronghold converted to a drip irrigation system at their Sierra Bonita site two years ago because they were wasting too much water with a flood irrigation system that used 900 gallons per minute. “It was way too big for what we needed,” says director of vineyard operations Craig Martinsen.

Even so, the winery’s domestic and irrigation wells both went dry this year, likely from the neighboring hothouse tomato operations. “They own their own well-drilling rig and they just keep punching new holes,” Martinsen says. “When it starts to get hot and the demand for water goes up, our access to water seems to go down.”

It’s like Plainview’s proverbial milkshake. Except the milkshake is the wine-country water table, and the winemakers themselves are staring at a near-empty soda glass.