Conventional Alcohol Farms are Hazardous to Your Health

By David Franklin

The conventional wine industry has poisoned our rivers, wiped out wild species, reshaped mountains, caused wells to run dry, peppered our ag lands with chemicals that are poisoning us and our children and are now getting ready to hack down our forests for profit while the planet roasts from deforestation and climate change. If you buy their product, you are financing the bad behavior.

Each year millions of pounds of chemical additives are being released into the local waterways and our precious farm lands that actually produce food. These hazardous concoctions are making their way into our drinking water, our air, our bodies and now even into the unborn. You don’t have to live next to a vineyard to be exposed, if you drink conventionally made wine, you are drinking those chemicals.

Chemical Use in Sonoma and Medocino VineyardsThese alcohol farmers are not our local grape growers but in fact over 80% of wineries in California are now owned and controlled by multinational, global corporations who are robbing us of our public resources (unrestricted water use), and off shoring their profits. This in turn creates a modern day feudal system that ensures low wages, limited seasonal work (with the communities picking up the tab for medical, education, food and housing during off season). If you live in St. Helena, it takes 5 wage earners in this industry to maintain a household. By 2020, it will take 9 according to journalist Will Parrish. Low wages, stagnant growth and county politics in Sonoma County have made the county the 10th lowest for job creation in the United States, (Press Democrat May 12th, 2012). To further add insult, large winery sales are mainly equity stock swaps that according to the NY Times are designed to avoid taxes.

Water for Food or Alcohol Production, Future Choice?

We were all happy to see the first big vineyards going in; after all, at least they were not building tract homes and looked “natural”. When alcohol production became so prominent and profitable, our area was marketed worldwide to the wealthy looking for a prestigious boutique winery. The 1% were told they would have low land prices, profit, virtually no regulations and unfettered water use. We now have seriously over pumped aquifers and polluted waterways.

Before 1971, Napa was exclusively a dry farmed grape region as was Sonoma County. Modeling after Israel’s wine industry, drip irrigation was brought over to Northern California to increase production. Grapes are purchased by the ton, so irrigated grapes weigh more and garner a higher price. Profit driven multinational corporations began buying ag lands for vineyards, the profit motive became the driving force to plant grapes in marginal lands. Not content with former ag lands, these large conglomerates are setting history and precedent to clear-cut rich Northern California forests that provide our water and clean air. I urge you to take the 4 minutes to see the process when a forest is clear-cut for a vineyard. I compare it to Appalachia mountain top removal. When you hoist that glass of wine, know it takes 31.7 gallons of water to produce one 4.2 ounce glass of wine. Wine or forest, what do you chose?

According to John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap (dry farmed for 24 years) and his manager, Frank Leeds (3rd generation dry farmer), it is impossible to make great wine from irrigated land. In their practice they have found that dry farming grapes is not a compromise in yields, cost of the health of your vineyards, the longevity of your vines (average replant is 14-17 years when watered) but the quality of your wine. On vineyard health, John compares watering of vines to, “Giving your kids coke and a candy bar for dinner.” Once you start watering, the roots stay on top of the soil instead of going deeper into the soil in search of water and character. Watering creates weeds and the conventional farmers use toxic herbicides to control in lieu of expensive labor. The soil continues to build pathogens like nematodes and phylloxera, and shortens the life of the vines, causing companies to replant. In France, watering your vineyards is a crime and grapes are not considered premium until they are 10 years old. Wine author and former wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Alice Feiring has been preaching the virtues of dry farmed, natural wines and has written several books. She calls most California wines “overripe, over-manipulated, and overblown”, and wishes wine makers would stop catering to marketers and leave out the additives and chemicals.

“We believe that winemaking technology (spinning cone, reverse osmosis, genetically engineered yeasts, mega purple, micro-oxygenation, flying winemakers, etc.) serves primarily as a means to mask the use of poorly grown grapes and furthermore, only serves to create a “global taste” for the common denominator and to that end, these methods have no place among our traditional winemaking methods”. (From “What We Believe, Frog’s Leap).

Chemical Use in Conventional Vineyards

Conventional wine can be compared to factory farming of cattle that need copious amounts of antibiotics to keep their “product” healthy enough to get them to the slaughter house. If you doubt me, check out the California Department of Pesticide Regulation pesticide summaries. In 2010, Sonoma County applied 108,274 pounds or over 54 tons of highly toxic glyphosate, primarily in vineyards. Glyphosate (Roundup) is being called by independent scientists as worse than DDT and predicting dire consequences for our health and environment. In a recent USGS report, the toxin was found in waterways throughout the Midwest agriculture belt where they also found it stays up to a year in soil and 6 months in water. Roundup was marketed to decrease pesticide use, is now used 8 times more than formerly used chemicals due to growing insect and weed resistance.

Glyphosate Use in Sonoma County VineyardsWhen you drink that glass of conventionally produced wine, know that glyphosate is a known endocrine disruptorthat is linked to infertility, birth defects, damaged DNA, suppressed immune systems and is a neurotoxin that is associated with many diseases including cancer. Even in low doses, scientists such as Dr. Laura Vandenberg are finding this chemical is not safe for humans. In this and other scientific studies, Round up has been found to be greatly absorbed and bound into soil, killing off good bacteria, promoting bad (phytopthogenic) fungi, and binding needed human nutrients causing deficiency diseases.

If this doesn’t convince you to be more selective with wine purchases, climatologists have modeled scenarios for our area that show soil will continue to dry out due to longer and hotter weather patterns. With massive amounts of water being used in this industry, our government still has not connected this resource depletion to climate change and addressed overuse of this precious public resource. Conversion of food production lands for alcohol consumption continues at a rapid pace in Northern California with counties approving additional water permits with very few conditions. Lisa Micheli, Director of Pepperwood Preserve, our local climate scientist has been studying our weather patterns for years and has viable, peer reviewed scientific studies showing two likely scenarios for Northern California. One option is protracted and copious amounts of rain. The other, and more likely, is for more prolonged periods without rain, with shorter rain periods coming in deluges, higher temperatures, dryer soils which in turn kills off our oak woodlands, chaparral and precious forests that are now being threatened for more vineyards.

The Wine Consumer

What was once a simple farming practice has turned into a mega industry supporting all the machinations and additions to make “premium” wine product. No longer is “great wine this connection between the soil and wine” (John Williams), but rather a very toxic and manipulated wine product. The wine industry marketers and critics have been changing the palette of the wine buyers and consumers are forgetting what natural wine really is. It’s time to fight back with our purchasing power.

The corporate world is not going to pay any attention to anything but the bottom line so it’s up to us, as informed consumers, to make these global companies do the right thing by voting with each bottle of wine we buy. Organic farm products are growing nationwide in double digits every year so there is money and consumers for the same in wine products. These best farming practices save our resources and our environment. If we all start by asking our wine purveyors if they have an area for organic, biodynamic or dry farmed wines, they will start promoting and carrying those wines. Pacific markets did this and robust sales moved the wine to a coveted end aisle. It’s a win-win for the environment, our natural resources and our health. You will get better wine and actively support the grape growers who are making wine for love and not global profit centers.

Following this article is a guide to some of these dry farmed, organic and biodynamic certified wineries in California to get you started. This list was last revised in December of 2011 and is intended to be used as a guide only. Sutro Media is presently developing a wine app with over 200 organically grown California wines for $20 or less.


Since this article was written, a 2 year study by prominent French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini was published in a peer reviewed academic periodical, “Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal”. It is considered the first long term study to examine effects of Roundup resistant GMO corn. The study “found that rats exposed to even the smallest amounts [of Roundup] developed tumors and severe liver and kidney damage”. Russia and France have banned the Roundup resistant corn from their countries. Despite the growing independent scientific reports on GMO hazards to public health, the 2012 Farm Bill as written but not voted on yet, allows for virtually no oversight and swift, if not automatic approvals of the new Agent Orange derived GMO products. Anyone who lived through the Vietnam War knows that Agent Orange is still causing birth defects and cancers to this day.

California Organic and Bio Dynamic Wines

Adastra * Napa Montemaggiore Sonoma
Alma Rosa Santa Rita Mendocino Wine Co * Mendocino
Ampelos Cellars * Paso Robles Morgan Santa Lucia
Araujo * Napa Neal Family * Napa
Barra Mendocino * Mendocino Nevada City Wine Guild Nevada City
Beckmen Santa Ynez Old World Winery * Sonoma
Benzinger * Sonoma Organic Wine Works Santa Cruz
Bonny Doon Santa Cruz Orleans Hill Nevada City
Bonterra * Mendocino Pacific Redwood * Mendocino
Bucklin Old Hill Ranch ** Sonoma Parducci * Mendocino
Casa Nuestra * Napa Patianna * Mendocino
Ceago Lake Paul Dolan * Mendocino
Chance Creek * Mendocino Peju Province * Napa
Cline Cellars * Sonoma Presidio Vineyard * Santa Barbara
Coates Napa Preston of Dry Creek * Sonoma
Cotourri Feingold * Sonoma Porter Bass * Sonoma
Crazy Flower Wines * Napa Porter Creek * Sonoma
De Loach * Sonoma Puma Springs Sonoma
De Tierra Monterrey Quintessa * Napa
Ehlers Estate * Napa Quivira * Sonoma
Flora Springs Napa Robert Siniskey * Napa
Fitzpatrick Sierra Foothills Saracina Vineyards Mendocino
Frey * Mendocino Shenandoah Sierra Foothills
Frog’s Leap ** Napa Silver Mountain Santa Cruz
Girasole * Mendocino Sky Saddle * Sonoma
Ggrich Hills * Napa Sobon Estate Sierra Foothills
Green Truck * Mendocino Staglin Family Vineyard * Napa
Grist * Sonoma Tablas Creek Paso Robles
H. Cotourri * Sonoma Terra Savia * Mendocino
Hall * Napa Testa Vineyard Mendocino
Hallcrest/Organic Wine Works Santa Cruz Topolos * Sonoma
Hawley Vineyards* Sonoma Tres Sabores * Napa
Heller Estate Carmel Valley Truett Hurst Winery * Sonoma
Horse & Plow * Sonoma Viader * Napa
Jeriko * Mendocino Wild Hog ** Sonoma
Joseph Phelps * Napa Wing Canyon * Napa
Kelseyville Wine Sierra Foothills Yorkville Cellars Mendocino
La Clarine Napa ZD Winery * Napa
La Rocca * Mendocino
Lolonis Napa
Long Meadow Ranch * Mendocino

Disclaimer: This list was compiled from several organizations that represent organic and biodynamic wineries along with individual websites. This is meant as a guide only. Grape growers were not included.
* indicates a local winery in Sonoma, Mendocino or Napa.
** denotes local, organic or biodynamic & dry farmed.


  1. “Herbicides found in Human Urine”, Itahaka Journal, January 2012.
  2. “The Myth of the Family Winery Global Corporations Behind California Wine”,
    Marin Institute Report, December 2009
  3. “Banks’ Derivatives Activity Falls Under I.R.S. Scrutiny”, 
    The New York Times
    ; Browning, Lynnley; January 20, 2012
  4. “Lawsuit Filed to Stop Clearcutting of Redwoods for Sonoma County Vineyard”, 
    Friends of Gualala River
    , June 7, 2012
  5. “Worse Than a Clearcut”, Sierra Club, 2007 (4.5 minute video)
  6. “Global Water Footprint”, Water Footprint Network, 2012
  7. California Department of Pesticide Regulation, pesticide use stats by county and year, 2012
  8. “Widely Used Herbicide Commonly Found in Rain & Streams in the Mississippi River Basin”; 
    United States Geological Survey
    , Capel, Paul; Aug. 29, 2011
  9. “Roundup Herbicide Found in Air, Rain & Streams”; 
    The Organic & non GMO Report;
     Roseboro, Ken; October 1, 2011
  10. “Environmental Chemicals: Large Effects from Low Doses”; 
    San Francisco Medical Society
    ; Vandenberg, Laura PhD; March 14, 2012
  11. “Adapting to Climate Change State of the Science for North Bay Watersheds”; 
    Pepperwood Preserve
    ; Micheli, Lisa PhD et al; December 2010
  12. “Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup Tolerant Genetically Modified Maize”; 
    Food & Chemical Toxicology
     volume 50 issue 11; Seralini, Gilles-Eric et al; November 2012