But in terms of wine, does "sustainable" connote a commitment to greener growing practices or is it a marketing gimmick? After a cursory perusal of winegrowers' websites, I reminded myself that a slick marketing strategy does not always equal sustainability.
What I really wanted to know was, "Are sustainable wines better than their conventional counterparts?" What better way to get to the bottom of this quandary than by approaching it as a consumer?
My husband and I love wine, but we are by no means connoisseurs. Even after buying Wine for Dummies, I still ask questions like "How do you recognize a good wine?" and "Which matters more -- varietal or region?" Compounding my confusion, I now have green questions, too: "How do organic grapes improve a wine?" and "What makes a vineyard sustainable?" I was due for trip to California's wine country for a little re-education from the experts.
Michael Honig is one of these experts. Honig, who sits on the board of directors for The Wine Institute, is taking the Institute's Sustainable Winegrowing Program to the next level by establishing a certification to offer over 1,100 wineries and related businesses a roadmap for going green. The Sustainable Winegrowing Program helps wine producers establish eco-friendly practices from ground to glass by developing guidelines and training to promote alternative energy, ecosystem management, composting, recycling, water conservation, and corporate citizenship. Through this effort, Honig is helping elevate the prestige of the entire region in the global wine market.
Honig begins the tour of Honig Vineyard & Winery by showing us his solar array. Installed in August 2006, the winery's photovoltaic system -- "our electricity farm," is how he describes it -- consists of 819 Sanyo 200-watt modules mounted on the ground, which generates plenty of power for the winery, including cooling and bottling, he explains. Over the next thirty years, Honig's solar system will prevent the emission of over 7.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide -- the equivalent of planting more than 34 acres of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees.
How much does it cost to do this much good? "The costs we incur now are more like investments. We are applying the same money we spend on electricity to paying off the bank loan to pay for the solar panels. After ten years we will own our system, enabling us to save over $42,000 a year in electric bills," says Michael. "We used to rent our power. Now we're on our way to owning it."
The solar panels and infrastructure cost $1.2 million, but Honig only had to pay for about one third of that. As part of Schwarzenegger's Million Solar Roofs Initiative, California's Public Utilities Commission has mandated that PG&E give credits to customers who feed solar power back into the grid.
These credits, combined with state and federal tax credits, make solar affordable enough for widespread use. "We'll pay this off within 10 years, less if the cost of energy goes up," says Honig. "The warranty on these panels is 25 years, so our vineyard should enjoy 100% cost-free solar-powered energy for at least 15 years." Honig's support of clean power also extends to his choice of fuel. He uses biodiesel in all of his trucks.
Continuing the tour, he points out sustainable features like a tributary restored by native vegetation and ground cover plants such as mustard seed, clover, and barley, which act as a natural blanket covering the soil with organic matter. Honig also uses trained golden retrievers known as "sniffer dogs" to detect the mealybug, an invasive species that first appeared in Southern California a decade ago. Sniffer dogs allow the wine grower to zero in on individual vines for removal, alleviating any broad use of pesticides.
Honig stops at a box that looks like a birdhouse. "One of the ways we keep from using pesticides is by using bird boxes. Blue birds eat an enormous amount of insects. To keep the insect and rodent population in check, we use hawk perches, barn owl boxes, blue bird boxes, and bat boxes," explains Honig.
Using nature's resources to address the problem of insects sounds like a stroke of genius until I remind myself that this is not an innovation, but simply the way it was meant to be.
The difference between sustainable vintners and others is they see a tangible benefit to their bottom line by working in concert with nature. Since vineyards are farms, land is their natural capital; to preserve the health of the land is a long-term investment. "Is conservation the right thing to do? Absolutely," says Honig. "But sustainability also means 'sustaining your business.' Green practices are integral to our business because they help us run a more efficient operation and produce a better product,'" he adds. Honig's critically acclaimed wines are a testament to this fact.
Michael's strategic and pragmatic brand of sustainability has appeal for executives from other industries, too. Honig has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and Michael now finds himself inspiring companies in other industries to consider sustainability by giving speeches around the country. "The wine industry has broad appeal. My position as the owner of a vineyard gives me a bully pulpit for talking about the benefits of sustainability," says Honig. "We believe in leading by example," he continues. "Our goal is to become one of the 'greenest' wineries in the world."
Boisset's 70 Percent Rule
Another green leader is DeLoach Vineyards, a certified organic winery known for its biodynamic farming practices and high quality yet affordable wines. The vineyard is located in nearby Sonoma County in the Russian River Valley, which wine experts consider "America's Burgundy" for producing the best Pinot Noir in the country.
Wine Enthusiast magazine named owner Jean-Charles Boisset "Innovator of the Year" for 2008. [Also see our 2008 interview with Jean-Charles Boisset, " Turning the Wine World on its (Rabbit) Ear .] I ask General Manager Lisa Heisinger to explain why. "Well, Boisset has a long history with sustainable viticulture," explains Heisinger, "but I think the area in which we've provided leadership as a company is in sustainable packaging."
Boisset won the award for his groundbreaking applications of Tetrapak, PET, aluminum, and screw caps in wine packaging. His bold decision to put Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies under screw cap makes wines "greener" by eliminating cork failure, which ruins 1 to 3 percent of wine produced. "Considering everything that goes in to making, transporting, and selling a bottle of wine, losing 3 percent can add up environmentally and financially," Heisinger explains.
The decision to put wines with centuries of prestige under screw cap was met by a split reaction. "Some people thought it was great and would reinvigorate French wines," she said. "Of course, others were flabbergasted. Disdain is not too strong a word."
Ultimately, the screw-cap wines were very well received and sold out, so it was a bold move that paid off, though not for all wines and not in all markets. "We've installed a screw cap machine at DeLoach, and the screw caps wines are popular with our international buyers. But here in America, there is still a luxury connotation to wine. We want the romance of the cork. We want the glass bottle. Anytime you change the packaging to anything that is not glass, whether it's Tetrapak, or screw cap, or PET, or anything without a cork, you are liable to have some people in the audience who are wary."
Americans may still be wary of screw cap wines, but those are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of green packaging. Heisinger presents Boisset's greenest innovations: wine in a plastic bottle embossed with a geometric design; wine in a lightweight aluminum bottle that chills rapidly; and a half-liter of wine in a recyclable cardboard container. These packaging alternatives are less energy-intensive than heavy glass bottles. They also require far less transportation. As Heisinger explains, "It takes 28 more trucks to deliver the same volume of bottled wine as it does wine packaged in Tetrapak."
This attentiveness to green packaging is not a marketing initiative but it's a company policy called The Boisset 70 Percent Rule. "More than 31.2 billion bottles of wine are consumed on earth each year," says owner Jean Charles Boisset. "Seventy percent of that wine retails for less than $10 per bottle. Within that 70 percent, at least 70 percent is consumed between 28 minutes and 3 hours of purchase. Seventy percent of the cost of that wine is the packaging (bottles, corks, capsules, and all other dry goods), shipping, and other related supply chain costs.
"The vast majority of the environmental impact of wine comes from the production and disposal of the packaging and from shipping the heavy merchandise around the world. We know that wine meant to be enjoyed young can be kept fresh and flavorful in a variety of packaging formats. Why then not offer this wine in lighter, more environmentally-friendly packaging that will reduce its carbon footprint and cost less to ship, yet still provide the high quality that customers demand?" Boisset asks. "By lightening the packaging and reducing its carbon footprint, the wine world can make a dramatic difference in the health of our environment … and invest in better quality wines!"
|Sustainable Wines and Vineyards*|
|(Solar-powered, organic, and/or biodynamic)
Napa Valley, California
Araujo Estate Wines -- http://www.araujoestatewines.com
Frog's Leap -- http://www.frogsleap.com
Grgich Hills Estate -- http://www.grgich.com
Honig Vineyard and Winery - http://www.honigwine.com
Joseph Phelps Vineyards -- http://www.jpvwines.com
Miner Family Vineyards -- http://www.minerwines.com
Robert Sinskey Vineyards -- http://www.robertsinskey.com
Shafer -- http://www.shafervineyards.com
Sonoma County, California
Benziger Winergy -- http://www.benziger.com
Cline Cellars -- http://www.clinecellars.com
De Loach Vineyards -- http://www.deloachvineyards.com
Ferrari-Carrano - http://www.ferrari-carrano.com
Medlock Ames -- http://www.medlockames.com
Red Truck Wines -- http://www.redtruckwine.com
Ridge Vineyards -- http://www.ridge.com
Mendocino County, California
Parducci (1st Carbon Neutral Winery in U.S.) --
California Certified Organic Farmers -- http://www.ccof.org
California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance -- http://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org
Sonoma County Winegrape Commission -- http://www.sonomawinegrape.org
Wine Institute -- http://www.wineinstitute.org
* Contact vineyards to find distributors of their wines to stores and restaurants in your area.
Boisset's bold approach to greener packaging and the favorable response among consumers in the international market demonstrates the significance of leadership. Such leadership in the greener packaging arena is helping shift demand in favor of greener packaging by exposing more consumers in different markets to these alternatives.
"The wine market in America may well change because of the millennial generation," continues Heisinger. "They are used to choices and adventure. We call it the Starbucks effect. Our grandparents just ordered coffee; today we choose from 30 different menu items at the coffee shop."
As consumers develop a taste for more "playfulness" in wines -- something Boisset excels at, notably with its "French Rabbit" wine in rabbit-eared cardboard boxes -- a willingness to accept eco-friendly packaging may be next.
Old (and Green) Methods Become New Again
Sustainable winemaking isn't new to Napa, but what was once considered a trend seems poised to become an industry standard, albeit a flexible one. The term "sustainable" spans everything from agricultural practices and energy use to packaging and transportation of the finished product.
Still, sustainable is not to be confused with "organic." The term "organic" applies to grapes grown without chemicals and pesticides. The finished product cannot be labeled "organic" because wine by its very nature contains sulfites. So, when you see "made with organically grown grapes," the wine can be considered as close to organic as possible.
Winemaking is a complex undertaking, part science, part art and all business. Winemakers striving to be greener must balance a number of interests. Although demand for sustainable wine is increasing, green practices wouldn't take root in the industry if they were to compromise quality, and from my amateur perspective, there was quality aplenty in the sustainably grown wines we tasted.The more you learn about wine, the more you'll learn what you don't know. But one needn't overcomplicate something so enjoyable. When in doubt, take the advice of American wine legend Robert Mondavi, "Instead of relying totally on critics, drink what you like and like what you drink." I'll raise my glass to that.
Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a full-service consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes create and execute profitable green strategies to save money and bolster their brands.