The Many Sides of Sustainability

The number of sustainability certifications in the wine industry has grown significantly over the past decades. From organic and biodynamic to sustainable and low intervention, each indicator—whether logo, emblem, or simply text on the label—conveys a message of commitment to environmentally responsible practices in the vineyard or winery.

But while there may be overlap, each classification has a different philosophy behind it. Certified organic vineyards cultivate grapes without the use of synthetic chemicals, while biodynamic wines employ a holistic approach to agricultural health within the vineyard. But the idea of sustainability encompasses something much broader than how grapes are grown and made into wine, stretching into every aspect of the business and raising questions about energy usage, waste, social impact, and carbon footprint. And considering increasing concern over the impact of climate change, it’s a hot topic for winegrowing regions around the world.

Yet there is not one global definition or set of standards to which all regions can adhere. The reason for this is straightforward: it’s a big world out there, and it’s not exactly easy to get everyone on the same page.

There are some international standards, such as the Environmental Management System (EMS) as well as ISO 14001 and ISO 14004, from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). But by and large, it has been individual regions that have staked out parameters by which to certify their wines as being made with a degree, or multiple degrees, of sustainability. And while the specifics of these certifications might not be clear to consumers yet, they mean a lot to those who have chosen to participate—not only to protect the quality of their wine, but to secure their long-term investment in the future.

New Zealand: The Model Example

Surveying the wine world today, it’s easy to find sustainability initiatives. Australia has the Entwine program, which includes the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) certification. In the northwestern United States, LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) helps guide Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Argentina employs Bodegas de Argentina Sustainability Protocol, and South Africa has a progressive system of sustainability codes. There are myriad regional programs throughout Europe, including Champagne’s Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) and Viticulture Durable en Champagne and Germany’s Fair’n Green. But leading the pack in terms of longevity, organization, and participation is New Zealand.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) was established in 1995 by the New Zealand Winegrowers. The country’s wine industry was relatively young at the time, and grapegrowers and winemakers felt that sustainability was an important part of ensuring the production of quality wine for the long term. According to Justine Tate, Business Manager of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, a catalyst for the initiative was that the growth of the region’s wine industry was driven by increases in exports, particularly to the United Kingdom, which showed a developing interest in established environmental credentials for products. In 2007, following wide industry consultation, SWNZ announced a bold sustainability policy that aimed to have all New Zealand wines produced under independently audited environmental programs based on pillars of sustainability—including water, energy, air, plant health, people, biodiversity, waste, soil, and business—by 2012. The standard requires that 100% of the fruit and winemaking practices qualify as sustainable, the highest requirement of any program across the world.

Vineyards in Hawke's Bay (Photo credit: Bryce Wiatrak)

In many ways, the concept of sustainability is about looking to the country’s past to secure its future. Because of their isolated location in the South Pacific, the first inhabitants of the country had no choice but to live in a respectful and responsible way, according to what nature gave them.

“This philosophy of guardianship, or kaitiakitanga in the native Māori language, of both land and resources is something I think the wine industry recognizes as well,” says Clive Jones of Nautilus Estate. “After all, this is a long game, where things such as experience and vine age pay dividends, so a sustainable approach makes more sense over short-term gains.”

To date, 98% of the production in New Zealand has been certified as sustainable. As of 2018, almost one-third of New Zealand’s land is under the protection of the central government’s Department of Conservation, with more than 70% of electricity generated from renewable resources.

“I think the collective mindset of our culture has significantly contributed to the success of these initiatives,” says Tate. “We are a country that has a long farming and agricultural history—land, water, and preservation have always been important to us.”

Jones attributes the program’s ultimate success to the overall willingness of producers. “There has always been a strong collegial approach to sharing information amongst winegrowers in New Zealand,” he says. “I think the high level of uptake among producers was only possible with the sharing of ideas and experiences. We recognize there’s a stronger collective voice than as individuals.”

Despite remarkable strides on the topic, the largest struggle remains with the awareness of consumers, who may not know what they’re getting in a certified sustainable wine from New Zealand. “It’s hard to summarize with a wine label the great amount of work that takes place to achieve this certification,” says Fabian Yukich, Executive Director of Villa Maria and the chair of the New Zealand Winegrowers sustainability committee. “We have to present the best quality in wine possible while also making sure that [we] are doing the right thing by the environment and beyond. The consumers who are the most concerned will do more homework and discover this on our websites and through word-of-mouth from wine buyers and influencers.”

As one of the industry leaders in wine sustainability, SWNZ has spent extensive time sharing experiences and best practices to help others prosper in their initiatives, including holding recent meetings in Australia, California, and Chile to discuss how the regions can learn from one another.

California: A High Bar in Sonoma

The best-known sustainability statement in the United States is the USDA Organic certification, communicated via a seal on the label, which confirms that wines are made with organically grown grapes, all additives are organic, and no GMOs are allowed, including sulfur additions. But because of its ban on sulfur, this certification is not very common. Instead, many American producers opt to specify that their wine has been “made with organic grapes,” a statement that allows for the use of organic additives, including sulfur (up to 100 parts per million). The downside to this is that it lacks an identifiable logo or emblem. It can only be written somewhere on the label, leaving it to the consumer to discover.

In California, many producers have looked in recent years to the California Wine Institute, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified, Lodi Rules, and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) for guidance on adopting more sustainable practices. But a few years ago, one of California’s leading regions decided to take a bold step toward complete commitment. According to Karissa Kruse, President of Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), she was approached in 2013 by Board Member Duff Bevill of Bevill Vineyard Management with the question of how to get Sonoma County recognized as a leader in sustainability. Having just assumed her title at the organization not six weeks prior, it seemed like a worthy challenge.

“Based on this simple question, I began a six-month exploration process with my board of directors to understand the history of sustainability in Sonoma County and what it would really mean to be leaders in sustainability,” says Kruse. “There was really only one answer, and that was to actually make a bold commitment that includes all grapegrowers in Sonoma County.”

With the unanimous support of the board of directors, in January 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers committed to becoming the nation’s first 100% sustainable winegrowing region. The organization works with California’s leading programs, including the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (“Certified Sustainable”), Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules, and SIP, to inform the criteria of their certification.

“These programs are triple-bottom line, with a collection of best practices that focus on being environmental stewards, economically viable, and socially equitable,” says Kruse. “In other words, do good for the dirt, our employees, neighbors, and community and ensure that [the] business is viable year after year. Each program has a third-party certification process. We felt that these programs that had been created, vetted, and regularly updated by experts from around the state met the needs of grapegrowers in Sonoma County.”

With the help of these programs, Sonoma County Winegrowers devised a plan for growers to commit to assessing their farming, business, and management procedures every year against more than 140 best practices, including areas such as water use, habitat protection, employee safety and training, business mission, and long-term viability. All applicants are certified by a third-party auditor, and grapegrowers are charged with annually writing a plan to improve, which, according to Kruse, is the critical part of the sustainability effort.

Kruse says the response has been overwhelming. Just five years into the commitment, more than 97% of the region’s 60,000 vineyard acres have been sustainably self-assessed, and more than 89% have taken the next step and engaged in a third-party audit to obtain certification.

Sustainability efforts in Sonoma have also extended to labeling. In January 2018, Sonoma County Winegrowers launched a Sonoma County Sustainable logo. The organization partnered with Ferrari-Carano and Dutton Estate to initiate the pilot program with more than 284,000 cases of wine bearing the new logo. Beginning with the 2017 vintage, other qualified producers can use the logo, available in a variety of colors to compliment existing branding. The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, with the California Wine Institute, offers a logo for use on wine labels as well. The California Certified Sustainable logo, also launched in 2018 and beginning with the 2017 vintage, requires that wines have at least 85% of grapes from California vineyards that are certified sustainable through the CSWA program. Some have argued that the various certifications and labels are overly confusing; it remains to be seen how consumers will respond.

The Sonoma County Winegrowers label (left) and the California Certified Sustainable label (right)

Chile: A Multi-Tiered Approach

Wines of Chile, the country’s industry organization for viticulture and wine, began its effort toward sustainability in 2008, setting the initial framework for a certification program. But rather than devising a holistic, all-or-nothing plan, Wines of Chile set forth a system based on requirements in viticulture, winemaking, and “social,” each given a different color—green, red, and orange, respectively. The code requirements are set out so that independent grapegrowers and wine producers may be certified individually for viticulture and enology, followed by the ability to pursue the orange area if the company is managing its supply chain of materials and services.

“Each winery has their own goals as a company regarding organic, biodynamic, and other certifications, which is fine. But this system was designed to allow all of the wineries to work together to help raise the reputation of Chilean wine as a whole,” says Patricio Parra, General Manager of Sustainability for Wines of Chile. In 2019, the code will launch a fourth area, focusing on wine tourism. “There are so many wineries involved with hotels, restaurants, and travel-related activities that it was clear this category was the best natural step to strengthen the program.”

As with many regional programs across the world, the effort toward sustainability certification is voluntary. According to Parra, the program began with the participation of about 10 wineries but has grown to include 80 producers, who account for 90% of the country’s exported wines.

Most of the largest producers have taken the necessary steps to become certified, including Cousiño Macul, De Martino, Viña Montes, Viña San Pedro, and Viña Tarapacá. And some producers are going even further. Viña Tarapacá launched a substantial biodiversity program in the Maipo Valley and made a commitment to producing wine using 100% renewable energy by 2021. Similarly, Concha y Toro aims for 100% renewable energy dependence by 2020. These leading Chilean producers have placed an emphasis on garnering a reputation for quality and sustainability.

In establishing criteria for the certification, Wines of Chile looked to New Zealand, California, Australia, and regions throughout Europe. But while many of these regions offer systems and practices that are translatable on a global level, Parra ultimately discovered that the climate, geography, and culture of Chile meant that many of the processes and considerations for the three-pronged system were unique to the country.

The Elqui Valley exemplifies Chile's unique geography and climate (Photo credit: Geoff Kruth)

“It has been infinitely beneficial to understand how other regions have approached their criteria for certification, but every single region truly has to devise their own strategy to create their own initiative,” says Parra. “While we all may want a similar outcome, we all have different problems and challenges. It’s hard to make a holistic comparative judgement on what’s more or less sustainable for different regions.”

Italy: Change in the Old World

Where winemaking history spans thousands of years, sometimes it takes a personal commitment from one producer to push forth change. In Italy, that person might be Michele Manelli of Salcheto, a biodynamic estate in Tuscany’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. A bit of a rogue producer, Manelli has been pegged as a leader, paving a new path for a holistic approach to sustainability.

In Europe, the average consumer associates sustainability with wines labeled as organic by European Union standards. These regulations require organically grown grapes as well as organic winemaking techniques, but unlike US requirements, sulfur additions are permitted up to 100 parts per million for red wine and 150 parts per million for white and rosé wines (with a 30 milligram per liter differential where the residual sugar content is more than 2 grams per liter).

But many producers throughout Europe, including Manelli, want more. Beyond sustainability in the vineyard, which was a priority for him as a biodynamic producer, Manelli has spent the past two decades designing the Salcheto winery to be almost completely off the grid and has extended his philosophy to all aspects of his business. He explains, “I have been inspired by biodynamic and organic farming since the beginning. But I also had to take this further. I needed to look at what we were doing in the cellar . . . where we transform and consume a lot of energy. So I did research to figure out how to make an extremely advanced, efficient system for the winery itself.”

During his research, Manelli also managed to measure and certify the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine, which prompted him to design the lightest wine bottle, the Bordolese Toscanella, so named for shoulders that are slightly more sloped than those of a Bordeaux bottle. The unique bottle design not only takes less energy to create but, because it is lighter, requires significantly less energy to ship.

Salcheto wines are produced by an innovative fermenter that recycles the CO2 naturally produced during the fermentation process. The light for the winery is provided by the sun through a system of large metal tubes dropped down to the underground winery. While many sustainable programs aim to employ renewable energy, Manelli took the idea a step further by reducing the consumption of energy across the board, creating what he considers an energy-independent winery.

“To me, it made sense to look at the entire business in a new way,” says Manelli. “Not just at what was happening in the vineyard, but in the cellar, in our social impact with employees and the community, and also at the economic sustainability. If you’re not thinking about the financial resiliency of the company, you won’t make it to a long-term goal. Everything has to be considered.”

Manelli is also working with others throughout Italy to bring about this type of philosophy. In 2015, he helped launch the Equalitas project, a nationwide sustainability program. While Italy has primarily relied on the individual contributions of about 15 sustainability initiatives throughout the country, Equalitas aims to unite all efforts under one umbrella. While most of the 15 initiatives are participating with the new entity, the decision-making power rests with Unione Italiana Vini (UIV), the trade union for wine producers, and Federdoc, the national confederation that protects and promotes the Italian Appellations and Dominations of Origin. The organization also works with CSQA Certificazioni, one of the leading agri-food certification bodies in Italy; Valoritalia, the first wine Denomination of Origin-certifying body; Gambero Rosso, Italy’s largest multimedia publisher specializing in food and wine; and 3AVino, a financial company targeting the winegrowing industry.

Equalitas plans to certify wine companies, wines, and territories under the pillars of agricultural, manufacturing, social, economic, and communication practices. Companies must quantify the impact of measurable and objective parameters related to their production activities, taking in biodiversity, pest management, water footprint, carbon footprint, interaction with the community, and the social impact of the company to evaluate the sustainability status of best practices adopted in the vineyards and winery.

“It’s not about making people do exactly what I do, but I think if you embrace the idea of quantifying what is happening in our ecosystem, then you understand how to improve your process,” says Manelli. “When you measure, you become aware, you make a change. It’s not just about a checklist; it’s about an overall management system.” Though the initiative is young, Manelli has been encouraged by the level of interest from other producers once they realize the tools exist.

“Italians are generally open and supportive, but it will take time to communicate the goals, gather participants, collect data, and make efforts to improve. But this is the case for all sustainable initiatives around the world,” says Manelli. “The wine world is deep and wide and complicated, but with pioneers in the field like New Zealand, Chile, California, and others, we don’t have to be afraid. And if we do the work, the consumers will begin to understand. It will take time, but we are all making it happen.”

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  • This is an excellent article on a hot topic. I'm in Seattle and more of my customers have been going beyond lip-service and curiosity and are now trying hard to seek to the "best" wine for their palate and their planet. We are also endowed with a handful of retailers and on-premise businesses who are also fighting the good fight. The power of "industrial" wine is not to be ignored, they do control much of the gaming table but not all of the wine glasses. There can be riches in the niches!

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