Will Parrish: Our local water commons has been stolen from us by Globalized Corporate Wine Colonizers to produce high-end booze. Does anyone care? (Updated)

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[Update: Investigative reporter Will Parrish will discuss his controversial recent series on the ecological toll of California’s wine industry, with a special emphasis on rapacious vineyard development in the Gualala River watershedThe North Coast Wine Industry: Draining Our Rivers Dry]

Don Sanderson: Will, your articles have been quite interesting. Alas, this has been happening in other agricultural sectors all over the country as, for example, in dairying. I can even trace the roots back to seventeenth century England. As long as cities made demands, there have been those who saw an opportunity for wealth if they could control all aspects of production and delivery. Those of that color eliminated my prospects for succeeding as a farmer way back in the fifties.

Still, there are many small vineyard owners who are attempting to make it with great difficulties, out in the fields doing their own work. There are also small proprietor-owned wineries scattered around the county providing employment for quite a few and making honest wine from those vineyard owners’ grapes. It is important not to tar and feather them with the same brush.

Will Parrish: Thanks for your kind words on the series, Don. Because your critique is basically the same as a few other people have offered, I’ll address it at length here….

In my work as an investigative journalist, I try to act as an interlocutor with current orthodoxy, expressing forbidden silences and demonstrating how the interests of rapacious power are served when certain things get omitted from public discourse.


Soon after I moved to Mendocino County, I was struck by the silence attending Big Wine’s destruction of the regional ecology and social fabric.

Here we have an industry that — to name just one of its impacts — converts every river it relies on to a collection of stagnant pools. If you want to kill off a river ecosystem and the wildlife that depend on it, a fantastic way to go about it is to do as Napa, Sonoma, southern Mendocino, and Lake counties have done: turn the land on the river banks and in the surrounding hills over to grape growers who are supplying into a global market for high-end booze, and who thus forego cultivating varieties well-adapted to their regions or practicing long-range pruning methods. Multiply the practices of these industrial vinters by hundreds of thousands of acres of grapes, and the result is a collection of dead and dying waterways that spans much of the North Bay and North Coast — the Navarro, Napa, Russian, and Gualala, and (to a somewhat lesser extent, perhaps) the Eel.

Most were mortally wounded by the timber industry to start with, it’s important to note, but the wine industry is in the process of finishing them off, or in some cases already has.

That ought to be a foremost concern of people who seek to localize the economies in these areas, by the way. The only people who have ever lived in a truly sustainable fashion in this region relied on the bounty of the rivers — “salmon, salmon, and salmon,” as some historical observers have characterized the Pomo economy. And the rivers remained a food commons for local people until quite recently. For instance, that’s one of the main ways a lot of folks in these parts made it through The Great Depression. Now that’s been stolen from us!

Over the years, some people have fought back — watershed and neighborhood groups in Sonoma and Napa counties, environmentalists, NGOs, the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Not only should more of Ecotopia’s professed environmentalists be joining in with the existing opposition, but doing so in a militant and uncompromising way.

Yet, most environmentalist circles ’round these parts have been mute on the subject of the wine industry’s destructiveness. About a year ago, a friend of mine brought up the possibility of taking on the wine industry at a gathering of Mendocino Environmental Center, and the only audible response he elicited was a man telling him that’s not something any of us should be worried about.

Now, from what I’ve observed, one reason for the collective silence surrounding the high-end booze sector is that many people here in Mendo perceive the business to be comprised mainly of, as you refer to them, small proprietor-owned wineries (not that you’re saying that). As a corrective to that mis-perception, I’ve focused consistently on the industry’s economic structure. Namely, most vineyard acreage is owned by people who don’t live in the area.An overwhelming majority of grapes are purchased and made into wine by a mere seven corporations. The money that’s inflated the grape bubble has accrued from big banks and pools of wealthy people’s money. The big boys ultimately call the shots and cream off almost all the profits. They’re the ones causing an overwhelming portion of the destruction.

Now, if I were to write a series exploring the horrible damage the corporate media has wrought on America’s political discourse, it wouldn’t be the case that I’m “painting all media with the same brush” just because I don’t specifically single out relatively marginal radio stations and newspapers for praise. If I were to write a series on the gut-wrenching economic impact of the US banking system, it doesn’t mean I’m “painting community credit unions with the same brush” as Citigroup and Bank of America, for instance.

Frankly, if you are part of an industry that’s characterized by large-scale destruction, it’s your own responsibility to distinguish yourself from the overarching destructive tendencies. In the case of the wine industry, some have — Frey Vineyards & Winery in Redwood Valley, for example. They didn’t need me to do it for them.

I sympathize with the little guys who are trying to make it in the wine industry. In the meantime, though, the industry as a whole is destroying a vast amount of the ecology of this region and, by extension, the ecological basis for the region to achieve economic sovereignty. If, in the process of trying to lance the pervasive silence surrounding these things, I’ve slightly understated the role that small-time, more eco-friendly grape farmers play in the regional wine biz (and if I’ve done so at all, it’s only very slightly), then I say so be it.

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention here (as I have throughout the series) that there’s an even bigger silence surrounding the fact that wine industry relies wholly on exploited, severely underpaid workers.

Don Sanderson: Thanks for your response, Will. I greatly appreciate your articles. The only way it seems this boil will be lanced is for the economy to fail. May it do so and soon. Nonetheless, I shall continue to enjoy wines produced by small proprietor-owned wineries with grapes from small farmer-owned vineyards.
Will Parrish Mendo Wine Series here