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.

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.

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.

Pro­duc­tion Mana­ge­ment

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.

Encou­ra­ging Bio­di­ver­sity

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.

Embra­cing Adver­sity

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.

Plan Ahead

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.

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