Our Precious Water

Water defines our existence on the East End. All the water that surrounds us moderates our climate. It makes our winters warmer and our summers cooler. It’s one of the reasons everyone wants to be here. The water-tempered climate also allows our region to produce high-quality wine, promoting moderate alcohol and brisk natural acidity in the glass.

Yet our water supply, even in our moderate maritime climate, is precious. And another hot summer has parched our fields and sent everyone scrambling for relief: in the bays, the ocean, a sprinkler, a shower, anything. In the dry West, raging fires provoke talk about the heat waves and extreme rainfall elsewhere associated with climate change.

The carbon footprint is what usually gets all the press, but our water footprint is just as important. There is a Web site waterfootprint.org that provides shocking statistics on both our direct and indirect water usage for a plethora of products. Consider these: 1,000 liters of water for a gallon of milk, 10,000 liters of water for 1 kg of cotton, 1,140 liters of water for 1 liter of apple juice, and for our precious fermented beverage, “one glass of wine (125 ml) costs 110 liters of water. In France, Italy and Spain, the largest wine-producing countries in the world, the average water footprint of wine is 90, 90 and 195 liters per glass of wine, respectively.” Other media like the Huffington Post during its 30 days of H2O campaign provided the figure of 31 gallons of water for one glass of wine. And don’t beat up on wine, everything requires a tremendous amount of water usage.

We have it good here in New York with a relative abundance of water (an average 45.8 inches of rain a year in Riverhead compared to 11.2 inches in Paso Robles, California). There are many places in the world, Australia and California in particular, where the scarcity and cost of water are prohibitive. And these are places were they have to irrigate or they wouldn’t have vines. We generally do not have to irrigate here on Long Island, since we get so much water from the sky, which makes the water footprint much smaller. I have statistics from Arizona to the California foothills to the Central Valley to Carneros where the irrigation requirements per vine range from 150 to 400 gallons of water. (For perspective, the average New York City resident uses 160 gallons of water per day.) And keep in mind there could be from a few hundred to a few thousand plants per acre.

Once you get the grapes harvested, there’s even more water use—mostly for cleaning tanks, barrels, presses and other equipment—in the winery itself: Roughly two to 10 liters of water per liter of wine produced. I have heard horror stories from wineries in Australia that couldn’t operate at capacity because they didn’t have the water to clean their tanks. So I always look for a way to use water more than once before it goes down the drain. Can I collect and reuse the water I just cleaned the filter pads with to clean a tank? Absolutely! In those hot, dry climates, water is actually used as an ingredient in wine, too (wine is actually about 80 percent water). The sugar levels are so high and the grapes so desiccated they actually need water for a hospitable ferment or to balance the high potential alcohol. That is where what the Californians call “Jesus units” and the Aussies call the “long black snake” comes into play and the hose is turned on!

I am not trying to be alarmist but I am pushing for greater awareness. There is nothing more important than water…it allows everything to exist! We would not have life as we know it without water. Yet collectively we as Americans spend very little time thinking about water and all its implications (do we forget we are all about 60 percent water?). We do think about drinking it, I hope, and the relief it provides from the heat, but the buck usually stops there.

The East End is lucky to be defined by so much water, both geographically and climatically. Of course too much water can also cause problems, whether in flooding from too much rain or sea surges from hurricanes. Right here, our wet climate provides us with agricultural problems like fungal diseases. But it also engenders structural elements in our wines (moderate alcohol; bright, natural acidity; tension of ripeness) that make them unique, special and delicious. So next time you are sipping a lovely local wine consider the water it took to get to that moment and remember we are a region where water is prevalent in our physical lives and give it the importance and appreciation in our thoughts and conservations it is due.

James Christopher Tracy is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.