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Sustainability in Wine Production
By Sandra Taylor
Sep 22, 2020
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Consumers, especially millennials, are increasingly concerned about where their food and beverages come from, how they are made, and whether they’re produced in a responsible way.   Wine is no exception.  As the demand for organic food continues to increase, restaurants and retailers are also seeing demand for wine made through sustainable practices.

My involvement with sustainable agriculture began when I worked in the coffee industry, during a period of tremendous growth in high-quality coffee shops and retail categories around the world.  During this same period, a crisis engulfed coffee growing regions due to a precipitous drop in the price of raw coffee beans, set by commodity exchange, to a 30-year low.  Coffee farmers had to sell their green coffee beans at a heavy loss, while coffee beverages and whole bean coffee sold at a hefty profit for coffee roasters and retailers in North America and Europe.

Farmers dependent on the money generated by annual coffee sales resorted to practices intended to increase their yield -- excessive chemical use and clearing of indigenous trees and native vegetation to plant more coffee trees.  They also failed to take costly measures to clean waterways and streams polluted by pulp discarded during coffee harvesting and processing.

To help reverse this damage, responsible coffee roasters, like Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee, Nestlé, Illy and German giant Tchibo, worked to develop codes of conduct and sustainable procurement policies that were socially equitable and promoted greater environmental responsibility.  These included water conservation, soil health, air quality, biodiversity, reduction of deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions, and a focus on improving coffee quality and taste, ensuring higher financial returns for farmer and the company--a true sustainable approach.

Being a wine enthusiast and longtime student of wine, I understood the many similarities between coffee and wine cultivation and tasting, so I began research into the social and environmental practices in winemaking.

Many in the wine industry are already working to do the right thing.   In wine regions worldwide, vineyard managers, farmers, and winery owners are implementing better growing practices, preserving biodiversity, and conserving energy.   In some regions, there is an increasing emphasis on social responsibility due to community circumstances and economic conditions of farm labor.

The common themes of social responsibility are working conditions, gender equality and fair compensation.  However the concept of social responsibility of a winery should also include aspects such as conserving traditions, culture, landscapes and building communities.

Sustainability certification programs have been fairly well embraced by many (but not all) winegrowing regions around the world.   Best practices are being implemented in New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, California and Oregon.   More recently, regional sustainability initiatives are underway in Argentina, Austria, Germany, New York and Sicily.  But more can be done in wine regions globally to embrace higher sustainability standards, treat workers and community with care, and reduce the industry’s role in climate change.  

Typically these programs are characterized by a commitment to strict record-keeping, continuous improvement, independent inspection and validation -- all designed to improve air quality, water quality and energy use, to reduce or eliminate chemical use for soil health, with an added focus on carbon footprint reduction, community engagement and social advancement.

Of course, a lot can be done to improve these programs.  The standards to be certified as sustainable -- and add a bottle seal attesting to sustainable certification -- should be more rigorous in some instances.  Also those vineyards that are certified organic and biodynamic should go further and include sustainable criteria among their practices.  While organic and biodynamic practices require elimination of all chemical use, they do not as a rule cover air quality, water conservation, emissions reduction, responsible packaging and social responsibility.

Furthermore, the global wine industry should do more to educate and market sustainable wines to its customers -- distributors, retailers, restaurants, event planners, sommeliers and consumers.

Typically consumers are confused as to the nature and meaning of sustainability programs and do not understand the certifications that end up on wine labels.  There is confusion enough regarding well-established certifications such as organic and biodynamic.  Sustainable and natural wine designations that vary by country and region add to the confusion.

Wineries have always had to balance today’s profits with tomorrow’s viability.  As the industry develops practices to preserve and replenish land, water, and other resources, the values embodied in the word terroir take on even greater meaning.  It’s easy to get the impression that “green” practices and standards can only have a negative impact on the bottom line.  But the balance of environmental and business imperatives is at the heart of sustainable agriculture and greatly affects the bottom line through consumer awareness and decisions.

The wine industry is embracing sustainability in a tactical sense, using cover crops in the vineyard, lighter bottles, and other measures that create a less ecologically impactful product.  But a larger strategy to fully develop the triple bottom line of financial operability, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship is still a work in progress.  It is that complete picture of the vineyard’s health--physical, financial, and human--that indicates the true long-term viability of a winery.

Sustainability advocates sometimes forget to stress the sensory aspects of sustainability.  Like readers of Wine Review Online, I very much enjoy tasting wine and the delight that comes from experiencing regional and vintage variations, varietal distinctions and food pairing.  For me that delight is enhanced when a wine is sustainably produced.  

A sustainable wine should not be judged exclusively on the arithmetic of environmental or social impact indicators.  It should be able to exhibit sensory characteristics that match consumer preferences and respond to their consumption needs regarding taste, landscape, history and culture.  These, after all, are why customers purchase a wine, which is critical to the financial sustainability of sustainably produced wine. 

More wine columns:     Sandra Taylor 
Connect with Sandra on Twitter:    @SanElizTaylor