Sunday, November 23, 2014

Turning Water Into Water

Have you noticed a theme in the local wine news lately? California's stubborn drought has focused renewed attention on how much water it takes to produce some of our state's most prized and delicious pleasures.

Mike Dunne recently wrote an article in the Sacbee about the staggering amount of water the wine industry needs to make wine, and how pioneering growers and wineries are taking major steps to reduce their consumption.  Industry experts Dunne interviewed concluded that it typically takes 5.6 gallons to grow enough grapes for a single four-ounce pour of California wine (!), and that the winery will need another 2-6 gallons (most for cleaning) to actually vinify a gallon of wine.  Hardly a model of sustainability... so as the drought drags on, more and more people in the industry are getting serious about reducing those numbers.

Earlier this month, I was invited to the headquarters of Free Flow Wines for the first annual Keggy Awards
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
for wine on tap sustainability, and was able to check out how they've tackled the sustainability problem -- an issue that has always been near and dear to their founders' hearts.  Free Flow puts premium wine brands into wine-certified stainless steel kegs, and since its founding in 2009 has prevented the equivalent of 3.9 million bottles from entering our trash system. By eliminating  most traditional packaging (the bottle, the cork, the capsule, the label, and the wooden case), the company saves wineries money and decreases the financial cost and carbon footprint of shipping the same volume of wine.

Once installed and tapped at a restaurant or bar, the kegs also preserve the wine in perfect condition for weeks using a proprietary blend of inert gases -- reducing the restaurant's spoilage losses from oxidation, speeding up service, and lowering the garbage bill for hauling off the empty bottles.  Free Flow rounds up the empty kegs and sends them to headquarters for a thorough cleaning, before filling them up with another 26 bottles' worth of wine from one of Free Flow's premium wine clients -- which include Au Bon Climat, Breggo, Cliff Lede, Copain, Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards, King Estate, Matthiasson, Qupé, Round Pond, Tablas Creek, and dozens of other brands, large and small.

Free Flow's south Napa production facility, home of The Hoff.
99.375% of the water used here is recaptured, cleaned, and reused.
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
The cleaning and sterilization part of this operation obviously requires a fair bit of water... about 4,000 gallons per day, even with water-efficient keg-cleaning equipment like the machine they call "The Hoff," pictured at right. (As CEO Jordan Kivelstadt explains, "It's pretty, it's German, and it's tempermental.")  But Free Flow designed a proprietary closed-loop water recycling program that enables them to recapture and reuse all but 20-25 gallons of that 4,000.  Using pH balancers, digesting bacteria, and ultrafiltration, they restore their wastewater to a pristine and sterile state that tastes better than the UV-filtered water in the office water cooler -- at least, according to the employees who took shots of the water to demonstrate their faith in the system.  The company says they save about $14,000 each month in water costs.

This is amazing! And exactly the kind of thing that needs to catch on. Less waste, lower transport costs, and lower consumption of resources at every level.  Hopefully we will see more and more of this ingenuity in the future, because a future without wine is no future at all.