SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION: THE MANY WAYS PRODUCERS ARE GOING GREEN
Wine grapes are notoriously delicate: A vineyard adjustment or a freak storm can transform an entire harvest. Climate change, then, is like a cold scythe on the back of the industry’s neck: destruction lying in wait. For decades, winegrowers have been grappling with shorter, more extreme seasons. A recent study warned that global temperature is on track to rise 3.6°F by 2100, which could shrink the area suitable for growing grapes by 56 percent.
The world of spirits and beer is also not immune to the perils of climate change, even if the consequences—thus far—have not been as overt.
While producers can’t stop climate change in its tracks, many are taking audacious steps to reduce their own carbon footprint and prepare for a wilder future. From field to facility, people to packaging, here are some ways producers are making their businesses more sustainable now and for decades to come.
Vineyard and Field Management
The most obvious way to combat climate change is by making more sustainable choices in the field. Winemakers have been contending with climate change for decades; according to a study from the European Geosciences Union journal Climate of the Past, 664 years of data from Burgundy shows that harvests start an average of 13 days earlier now than they did before 1988.
Producers have been discovering ever-more counter-intuitive ways of fighting the climate change that already exists and reducing their reliance on chemical inputs to do their part in stopping to the problem.
Some producers, such as Delmas in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, have developed novel techniques. A “killer cold” event in the winter of 2016 resulted in 70 percent bud death. It was the third such event in a decade, prompting owner and estate director Steve Robertson to urge his director of winegrowing (and daughter) Brooke to come up with a way to heat the vines in situ while maintaining the trunks and spur positions.
They transitioned their existing blocks to mini-head-trained (MhT) vines, where the goblet and fruit zone sits between 12 and 18 inches off the ground. They then planted two more blocks to this new training form because it provides “better cluster positioning for light penetration and air flow results, along with less water use and quicker berry phenolic maturation,” says Robertson. “All elements combined deliver plant balance, health, and longevity.” They also use the AVA’s natural volcanic cobbles, gravels, and loamy terroir to protect the vines post-harvest by burying the trunk and spurs up to three buds on the cane. The individual mounds of insulating earth over each plant serve as “winter blankets.”
The change has been so positive that new vineyards being developed in the AVA are adopting the method.
Others have trod tried-and-true paths to green pastures. At Decibel Wines in New Zealand, winemaker Daniel Brennan eliminated the need for most chemicals by working with growers who practice dry farming, building falcon and hawk nests to scare off grape-munching birds, and recruiting sheep to manage weeds and improve soil. Brennan says the hawk population is such that now many growers in the area are benefitting from it.
Nyetimber in West Sussex, England, has planted thousands of native trees around its vineyards to act as a windbreak, a boost to vineyard biodiversity, and a wildlife corridor. It also brings critters into the field; since 2013, sheep have been used to manage weeds and provide au natural fertilizer.
In a bid to encourage a more balanced ecosystem at Spain’s Segura Viudas, half of the 250-acre estate is forests, olive groves, and fruit trees. It’s also reduced CO2 emissions by more than 1,500 tons through green energy offsets, the conversion of conventional lighting to LED, and energy use improvements in the refrigeration of wine and air compression system.
Several regions, as in Alentejo in Portugal, see sustainability as not just a good thing to do, but also an economic necessity. Since 2015, the voluntary program, Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP), has grown from 96 to 411 members. Eighteen percent of members now have bird boxes, cover crops, and hedgerows to attract vine-friendly critters; 62 percent are monitoring water use; and 38 percent are converting organic waste into compost. The group as a whole is implementing third-party certifications to prevent greenwashing.
Abadia Retuerta in Portugal’s Duero valley wine region is participating in a European initiative called Natura 2000 Network, which aims to halt the disappearance of natural species and their habitats. Brands such as Abadia Retuerta agree to leave certain parts of their estates uncultivated to form a broad network of protection for migrating animals, birds, bees, and other essential links in the chain of life. Abadia also joined Operation Pollinator, creating habitats for pollinating insects along the margins of its vineyard—and discovering 145 insect species on the property in the process, all of which help keep vine-sickening parasites in line and reduce the estate’s reliance on chemical intervention. For Abadia, like Alentejo, it’s part of their philosophy and plan for long-term financial and biodiversity-based stability.
Cost: Varies, and not every producer would share numbers, but they all said that while implementing these regimens was costly, in the long run it paid off with reducing the need for more irrigation, sprays, diesel use, labor, and the creation of more resilient vines.
Like vineyard management, this is one of the most obvious ways to be green, but there are a number of ways it’s being done that are anything but obvious. There are two main tacks.
One is packaging. Protector Cellars, based in Santa Maria, Calif., and launched in March 2020 by Alex Katz, is the first winery to go beyond carbon neutral by using only third-party certified sustainable (SIP, CSWA, Lodi Rules) grapes and packing them in aluminum cans, which weigh significantly less than an average wine bottle in equivalent volumes. This makes them lighter to ship and eliminates the need for cardboard dividers and foam or pulp shippers, Katz explains. All in, a box of 48 cans supplies more wine and takes less volume on a truck. What’s more, according to a study by Resource Recycling Systems, the average recycling rate for aluminum is 69 percent, versus glass at 46 percent. Protector’s climate positive, “carbon negative” third-party certified status means it removes more greenhouse gases than it adds through energy-saving initiatives and carbon off-sets.
At Gamble Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., proprietor Tom Gamble completely revamped his packaging. He began using compostable sugar cane stoppers produced in Brazil for his sauvignon blanc and rosé, because the stoppers retain a certified zero carbon footprint and are produced using 100 percent renewable energy. For the direct-to-consumer line, Gamble uses plant-based wax seals instead of mined and processed foil caps, and he has reduced the amount of glass in each bottle (which lightened the winery’s bottle weights). Gamble also engraves bottles locally or has them screen-printed, reducing the need for labels that are milled far away then shipped to the local printer.
Anaba Wines in Sonoma County recently partnered with a local company, SolarCraft, to install a solar electric system on the winery’s property in the Carneros AVA. The system will work with an existing wind turbine system. Anaba produces 8,000 cases and makes an additional 17,000 cases for custom crush clients. According to Proprietor John Sweazey, the 45-foot Skystream wind turbine provides electricity for the old tasting room, storage, and some irrigation pumps, and when combined with the recently installed solar panels, the winery will significantly cut power costs and comes closer to its goal of using 100 percent renewable electricity resources for its new production facility and hospitality center.
Minneapolis-based Tattersall Distilling, which produces 30,000 cases annually and sources from local farmers, installed chillers to eliminate the need for water during the cooling process. It’s in the process of implementing a system to reclaim wastewater, and has partnered with local farmers and NETZRO to make sure its spent grain gets upcycled for animal or human consumption. On average, Tattersall is saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water annually and upcycling 20,000 pounds of spent grain per week.
Cost: Varies. Tattersall’s chillers cost north of $100,000 apiece. By comparison, Protector pays more than two times on average for cans versus bottles, and canning costs about twice as much. Gamble saves about $1 per bottle with its bottle program, and $0.10 or more per cork.
Agrobiodiversity has long been hailed as a way to mitigate the impact of climate change. A Pesticide Action Network (PAN) study predicted that increasing the diversity of winegrapes, and planting varieties that can withstand heat and other extremes, could decrease areas lost to climate change from 56 percent to 24 percent.
In the country of Georgia, considered by scientists as the historic “cradle of wine” and where more than 525 indigenous grape varieties still grow, grape-hunter Giorgi Natenadze is dedicating his life to finding and preserving species that haven’t been cultivated for hundreds of years.
Natenadze says he’s rescued 24 Meskhetian grape varieties in 18 years and has thus far tested 11 for winemaking. He feels nine of them have strong potential, with the bonus of being “pest resistant and able to withstand very cold winters.” He works with a handful of grape growers abroad who are curious about planting these hardy Georgian grapes and sees his work as not only a way to honor Georgia’s history, but help ensure its future.
Other winemakers also hope to use lesser-known varieties to fight climate change. In Ballard Canyon (Calif.), JONATA winemaker Matt Dees has planted one-half acre each of Greek grape varieties assyrtiko and xinomavro. He’s also tinkering with 15 vines of limnio and 10 vines of limniona (also Greek) to find out if these more acidic varieties will be able to handle the area’s increasingly hot summers.
“If we are, indeed, getting warmer, then we need to be diligent and stay open-minded about all options,” Dees says, adding he chose these grapes based on his own “lo-fi R&D.” He touts xinomavro’s “powerful fruit with great structure and freshness,” and a Clos Stegasta assyrtiko that “was absolutely one of the most exciting white wines I’ve had in years.”
Distillers such as Mexico’s Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky, meanwhile, believe that grains indigenous to the region in which they’re grown are greener—and simply taste better. “We work with about 10 families who grow the ancient cacahuazintle corn in Jilotepec de Abasolo. It’s a corn that has grown here for thousands of years before being replaced by hybrid and GMO corn,” explains Iván Saldaña, co-founder and master distiller. “This corn requires less water, it doesn’t require the chemical interventions that the Monsanto corn does, and it tastes so much better. We see terroir as going beyond a product’s taste to its culture. We’re trying to not only produce a better whiskey, but help replace some of what has been lost in our community as our relationship with corn changed.”
Other producers are also concerned about how agriculture has impacted the natural cycle of life. Mark Oberle co-launched Meadiocrity in San Diego, Calif., to create a libation that didn’t require anything but existing farmland for the 6 million bees under his care. “We work with local ranchers and farmers to put bees on existing landscapes to pollinate their crops,” Oberle says. “Agriculture depends on bees, and by creating a brand made from honey, we’re helping farmers and eaters, and creating something delicious in the meantime.”
At Bannister Wines in Sonoma County, Calif., winemaker Brook Bannister sees the scheurebe he and his wife, Morgania, produce as a micro-paradigm shifter for the consumer. “Biodiversity is critical to the land’s health, and while I don’t think I’m putting a dent in the large problem of climate change by making a few hundred cases of wine that people are unfamiliar with, I do hope that it will open their minds.
“Every study I’m aware of has found that, the wider the biodiversity there is on a particular farm site, coupled with good farming practices, the greater the health of both the surrounding land and the plants on the farm,” continues Bannister, who sources his scheurebe from friend and neighbor Justin Miller. “It has impacts on water quality, lessens the need for insect controls, and leads to healthier soils—all signs that you’re growing something really healthful for public consumption and that you’re not leaving the surrounding environment worse off.”
More and more producers are saying that true sustainability must take human needs into account. It’s also smart business: Economists have found that treating employees well is linked to customer satisfaction. The Asheville, N.C.-based Craft Maltsters Guild, meanwhile, is looking at the issue of personal sustainability from a bird’s‑eye view, hoping to weave tighter ties within communities by pushing its member brewers and distillers to support local malthouses within their community.
“We debuted the Craft Maltsters Certified Seal last fall, and so far, 73 brewers and distillers have committed to source at 10 percent or more of their grains from craft maltsters,” says Executive Director Jesse Bussard. “With the hiccups in the supply chain caused by COVID-19, the interest is way up and we could have 100 or more members committed by end-of-year.”
Cost: No additional cost to grow or make different products. Membership for brewers and distillers in the Craft Maltsters Guild is $150; the program is free to join.
In 2016, Phelps Creek Vineyards in Hood River, Ore., was on track to harvest 60 tons of pinot noir. Then wildfires hit, says Robert A. Morus, Phelps’ winegrower. About 30 tons were still on vine when, for days, a thick smoke enveloped the vineyards. “We tested the grapes after fermentation and the smoke damage was off the charts,” he recalls. “We could have pressed the wine early and minimized skin contact, added tannins to fix color, deodorized with coal, and sold it as bulk at a not-great price, because it has to be diluted 10 to one. Then there’s the question of how it changes over time.”
The option of turning grapes he’d spent the year nurturing into an industrial product and selling them at below cost didn’t appeal. But then he had an idea.
“Brandy is usually made from cheap grapes, and I knew ours, especially with the smoke, would produce a really interesting flavor profile.” The winery took 1,500 gallons of smoke-influenced wine, distilled it, and is in the process of creating a brandy with Camp 1805 in Hood River, Ore.; the brandy is currently aging in barrel and will remain there for the next five years (at least).
Morus didn’t stop there. He made Calamity Smoky Pinot from six barrels of smoked grapes and contributed $3 from every bottle sold to the Eagle Restoration Fund, which is dedicated to rebuilding trails lost in the blaze. After the COVID-19 outbreak, he contributed 300 gallons of the smoky pinot for hand sanitizer and is in the process of launching a smoky pinot barbecue sauce.
“I didn’t want all of those grapes to go to waste, but I also didn’t want to create something inauthentic, so we decided to just own the smoke and do something creative,” Morus explains.
Cost: Even with Morus’s product innovation, Phelps lost about $500,000. While it typically bottles 3,000 cases annually, just 181 were produced in 2017.
There are many ways to go green in the fields, in production facilities, and in unexpected ways when life gives you lemons. But to optimize effectiveness, a plan is necessary.
“Creating a sustainability improvement plan is essential if you’re serious,” says Susan Tipton, owner and winemaker at Acquiesce Winery in Lodi, Calif., a small-batch premium winery that follows the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. After implementing strict sustainable protocols, she estimates that the winery now saves $6,000 per year through reduced chemical use, less irrigation, and lower labor costs. She can also sell her grapes to other wineries for more by following the third-party certified rules, bringing in an extra $12,000 annually, she estimates.
Domaine Bousquet in Argentina’s Uco Valley was founded in 2005; all of its wines are made entirely from certified organic grapes. Co-founder Anne Bousquet admits she has no basis of comparison on economics because they never strayed from organic agriculture—but, she adds, it was never just about money.
“It’s part of our culture and we believe it’s a better way of doing things,” she says. “We invest with a different mindset. I’m 100 percent sure the quality of the grapes and the health of the soil and vineyards is better, and it sustains the land and the environment for future generations.”
The scythe of climate change is swooping down. By turning around and fighting, a business’ chances for survival will increase.