Features In Search of Sustainable Wine

In Search of Sustainable Wine

An impressive 99.5 percent of grapes in Alto Adige are herbicide-free.
© Italiaturismo | An impressive 99.5 percent of grapes in Alto Adige are herbicide-free.
Wine lovers celebrate the diversity of the wine, but they may also have to embrace sustainability.
By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Sunday, 03-Jan-2021

Rabid wingnuts aside, the concept of sustainability is no longer controversial.

The planet is heating up (the global average surface temperatures has increased more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880 with average temps steadily increasing each year since the 1980s, melting glaciers and sea ice, changing weather patterns, setting humans and animals on new migratory paths) and pesticides have been proven to cause short- and long-term effects on people, insects, animals and the planet – Bayer alone is set to shell out $10 billion to resolve thousands of suits filed by claimants who say their product Roundup causes cancer.

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Something – lots of things, in fact – must be done to make the business of making the world go around as green as it is efficient.

But perhaps more to the point, for the agnostic, care-free or dubious: consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable stuff, including wine. About 76 percent of Generation Z, 89 percent of Millennials, 78 percent of Generation X and 57 percent of Baby Boomers would be willing to pay more for wine produced sustainably, according to a 2019 study produced by Wine Intelligence, which was funded in part by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

But how much more? Key takeaways: on average, Generation Z would be willing to pay $2.90 more, Millennials would be willing to pay $3.30 more, Generation X would be willing to pay $3.10 and Baby Boomers would be willing to pay an extra $2.50 for a bottle of sustainable wine.

Sustainability, of course, is a loose term that means, like freedom or terror, different things to different people.

"We have been studying sustainability for more than a decade," says Christian Miller, proprietor of Full Glass Research, which analyzes industry trends. "The closer something is to being put in your mouth raw, the closer it must hew to being organic to be perceived as sustainable. In an extreme case, let's take an apple vs. floor cleaner. Consumers will want the apple to be organic, but may accept floor cleaner as sustainable if it's produced in an energy-efficient way, or its packaging is ecologically minded. Wine is a processed item in the middle ground between these extremes, alongside breakfast cereal or jam."

In other words, sustainability initiatives for wineries can certainly include organic and biodynamic initiatives, but could also include, say, greener packaging or solar-powered production lines.

There's another issue too: sustainability programs that work in places like Walla Walla, WA, may not be realistic in places like the Finger Lakes in New York because the climates present completely different pest and disease challenges.

"It's much easier to be organic in certain climates," Miller says. "Anywhere you have high humidity and not much wind, it will be much more challenging to be organic and biodynamic because the pests and funguses that require chemical intervention are often naturally driven away by drier, windier climates, whereas they in humid and less windy conditions they thrive."

(Caveat: extraordinarily stringent environmental measures can be put into place almost anywhere, if money and time are no objects. And while biodynamic and organic projects thrive across the planet even in the most unlikely places, these exemplars simply aren't truly scalable at this point for big brands that want to make decent wine for $15 or less a pop. Whether or not that is and should be a realistic goal in most regions is a different issue entirely).

And yet, every single winemaker that wants to meet USDA Organic Certification, Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Sustainability in Practice, etc. standards, has to be doing the same thing in their fields, no matter where they are. And each certification program has slightly different standards: winemaking may have to be chemical free or dry-farmed in some but not all cases, while others may have social, energy-focused or economic elements.

Certifications drive many purchasing choices for wine drinkers, but according to the Wine Intelligence study, non-certified statements on wine bottles also positively impact the likelihood of a purchase.

Please read on for a look at three regions grappling with these theoretical and practical issues.

Alto Adige – ideal conditions

Alto Adige in northern Italy has the makings of an ideal terroir for classic, chemical-free sustainable wine. The weather there is sunny 300 days a year on average, with elevations of up to 3300 feet above sea level, cool nights, strong winds. Disease may arrive, but it won't likely thrive.

About 40 million bottles of wine emerge from the Alpine Italian region, the vast majority of which are from co-ops that manage a network of small growers.

"We have 160 winery families working 270 hectares, and most are working with less than two hectares each," says Wolfgang Klotz, director of marketing and sales at Cantina Tramin, which produces about 150,000 cases of wine. "It may be counter-intuitive, but becoming more sustainable with so many families is actually easier than trying to make one large company sustainable. We can ask them to do a lot of manual work, and we tie their prices to the quality of the grapes. We pay premium for grapes not grown with herbicides, and our program has reduced the use of chemicals significantly. At last count, 99.5 percent of our grapes were herbicide-free."

the idea of sustainability is even catching on among the traditionalists of Bordeaux.
© Viking | the idea of sustainability is even catching on among the traditionalists of Bordeaux.

Cantina Tramin is part of a much larger movement in Alto Adige. On February 17, 2020, a Sustainability Agenda was approved unanimously by the Consortium of Alto Adige Wine, with the goal of not just eliminating chemicals, but fostering biodiversity in the vineyards, and reducing the carbon footprint of production with green energy initiatives. All by 2030.

Other wine co-ops, like Kellerei Kurtatsch, with 190 families on a total of 190 hectares under its umbrella, has already adopted several of the initiatives.

"I see it as a basic requirement for premium wine," says Harald Cronst, Kellerei's export manager. "We are so extremely small and structured in Alto Adige, I see it as a big chance, and believe implementation will be successful. Selling conventional wine in the future will be more and more difficult, especially in North America and Scandinavia."

New York – challenges and determination

New York, unlike Alto Adige, does not boast the kind of climate that makes eliminating chemicals a relatively feasible task. New York, of course, is a big place, with four major wine-growing regions: the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River, Long Island and Lake Erie. All have different climates, with varying degrees of difficulty in terms of going green, but none without a serious uphill climb.

"It won't be easy or simple, but for the long-term economic and environmental viability of our winegrowing regions, we need to prioritize sustainability," says Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation (NYWGF). "But that doesn't just mean viticultural practices, although we do ultimately want to reduce our reliance on agrochemicals. It also means encouraging biodiversity around vineyards, creating environmentally responsible packaging, reducing energy output and thinking about the welfare of workers in the vineyard and the communities around our vineyards."

A tall order to be sure, especially when the needs of four very different wine regions need to be considered. The NYWGF has a template to work from, however.

"About 13 years ago, Cornell developed a vine balance manual that provided best practices advice for wineries in the Finger Lakes and Western New York seeking to grow table and wine grapes more sustainably," Filler says. "Then wineries in Long Island pooled money together and adapted the manual to address their own particular concerns, which were focused on water. The vineyards there are sitting on an aquifer, which means chemical can seep into drinking water, obviously a huge area of concern."

On December 9, the NYWGF announced that it secured grant funding from multiple sources, including the USDA and John Ingle of Heron Hill Winery – a bullish advocate of organic agriculture in the Finger Lakes since founding the winery in 1977 – to launch a full-throttled sustainability program for all of New York in 2021. 

An RFP has been issues seeking consultants who can help tease out truly sustainable solutions for some of the seemingly intractable climactic challenges (including cool temps, heavy rains, high humidity and widespread environmental degradation from land-use practices), based on models (including Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, California Sustainability Winegrowing Alliance, LIVE Certified, Vineyard Team, and Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand), while also providing a business, operational, marketing and financial plan.

Bordeaux – serious strides

In many ways, Bordeaux could serve as a template for what the New York industry hopes to do. The mild, wet Atlantic climate attracts pests and diseases – including grapevine moths and powdery and downy mildew – that are tough to combat sans chemicals. Plus, you have a region rooted in tradition and cautious about investing in changes with a dubious outcome.

But in 2016, the region realized changes needed to be made not just for the good of the environment, but for their bottom line. The Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) began shelling out about $486,000 annually on research on pesticide reduction, and in just two years, the number of organically certified producers of AOC Bordeaux increased by 29 percent to 608.

As of 2019, 65 percent of vineyards in Bordeaux had some kind of sustainability certification, up from 55 percent in 2016 and 35 percent in 2014. Within Bordeaux, the Gironde is tops in terms of sustainability with 1000 properties certified as having a High Environmental Value (HVI), a designation that utilizes a third-party certified analysis of its biodiversity and pesticide and water use.

Reality check

Not every wine can be a hand-sell, especially as a pandemic rages. But what consumers are clearly capable of – and in some cases desire – is a deeper understanding of the regional nuances of sustainability. Instead of broad, vague notions of sustainability, more winemakers, marketers, importers and distributors should be communicating their distinct sustainability bona fides, along with tasting notes and brand stories. Bottles, shelf-talkers and social media pages are all ways to succinctly and quickly tell wine lovers what is – and isn't – happening in their fields.

"Perfect can be the enemy of the good," Miller warns. "I would not want to downplay the danger of greenwashing because that is indeed a serious issue. But for those who say that it's either go biodynamic or go home, I would ask: 'Is it better for 80 percent of the growers in a region to go halfway toward perfect, or end up with 10 percent of the growers being perfect?' Now that calculation will vary region to region, but for wet, challenging climates, going halfway in the fields and focusing on carbon neutrality, eco packaging and other initiatives in the winery, we may all end up getting to a better place faster than insisting on rigid definitions."

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