Spirits of Sustainability

Spirits of Sustainability

A renowned wine steward, Fetzer Vineyards is growing its reputation as a conscientious steward of the environment as well. By Penny Bonda

Well before sustainability became fashionable, well before the current organic food craze ratcheted into high gear and the USDA issued organic product regulations, Fetzer Vineyards began developing and initiating environmentally responsible business practices. In the mid-1980s the Fetzer family and Paul Dolan, its director of winemaking, purchased the Valley Oaks Ranch in Mendocino County, CA, and made the commitment to grow all of its grapes organically. Today Fetzer grows almost a thousand acres of certified organic grapes and have incorporated sustainable farming practices, conservation techniques, waste management and energy reduction programs into every aspect of the business. Fetzer recently announced that by harvest 2010, the winery intends to grow and purchase only organic grapes for the production of its wines.

How it all got started has become the stuff of company lore—with several different versions offered. One story, according to Fetzer’s managing director Pat Voss, is that because of the Fetzer family’s interest in organic gardening and as part of the visitor’s center at Valley Oaks in Hopland, a five-acre organic garden was created in the middle of the vineyards, with hundreds of different types of fruits, vegetables and plants. The gardener at that time complained about having to grow an organic garden in the middle of vineyards that were being sprayed with chemicals. Another story tells how Paul Dolan, while tasting grapes in the vineyard, discovered that within the same row, some grapes were flat and insipid and didn’t taste like much while others were very fruity and had a lot character. Thus began a conversation of how healthy vines grown in healthy soil produce quality grapes—and the connection was made that the use of toxic chemicals was destroying the natural organic life of the soil, and in turn was affecting the quality of the grapes. Eventually it led to the decision to farm the vineyards organically.

Fetzer Vineyards are certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers, an agency authorized by the USDA, according to national organic program regulations begun in October 2002. For California wineries, the term “organically grown” can be used only for wines made from vineyards certified by CCOF. Under these guidelines, any food product using the word “organic” must be free of genetically modified organisms, radiation, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. In California, the process for a vineyard to make the transition from conventional farming to Certified Organic takes three years as CCOF inspectors examine the crops, the land, the facility, the process and the paperwork.

Fetzer Vineyards need not worry about this level of scrutiny. Its environmental initiatives extend far beyond organic grapes into what it calls an E-3 program, which stands for the environment, for economics and for equity. As Voss says, “You can look at organic farming as coming from all three positions: it’s good for the earth, it’s good for our people who are working in the vineyards, and if we get better quality fruit by farming organically, it’s good for our economic bottom line as well.”

An impressive number of environmental efforts have been initiated in recent years, many of which set Fetzer apart from its competitors. Recent news stories have reported on the destruction of wetlands and sanctuaries caused by vineyard expansion along the Russian River. To offset this damage, Fetzer created a sanctuary for blue herons and has established ongoing procedures for erosion control, stream bank mitigation and replanting natural riparian systems, in addition to participation in annual cleanup events. It is also certified as a “fish-friendly farmer,” which means that its farming practices do not impact the natural fish population by either putting silt into the water from erosion or from doing anything to the stream bed that would impact the viability of the fish population.

Winery wastewater has been handled by a natural filtration system created in 1998 following a three-year study by a UC Davis doctoral candidate. Fetzer’s wastewater ponds were converted into a natural system employing gravel and sand filters, plus a planted reed bed. The treated water is then reused on the grapes and landscaping.

Company-wide recycling centers have been established, and by separating and sending all bottles, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, computer paper, antifreeze, waste oil, fluorescent tubes and glass to various recyclers, Fetzer has saved thousands of dollars in dump fees. The State of California has recognized these efforts with their Waste Reduction Awards Program (WRAP) for the past seven years. In 1997 Fetzer Vineyards was recognized as one of the top ten recycling companies in the state.

Working with Pacific Gas & Electric, the company found new ways to reduce energy consumption. For example, a simple insulated concrete wall was devised and built to separate cold stabilizing wine from warm-fermenting wine, resulting in a power bill reduction of $5,000 per month. In 1996, a 10,000-square-foot administration building was constructed in Hopland, one of the world’s first large-scale uses of rammed-earth construction and featuring recycled doors and timber. Photovoltaic panels were added to the building in June 1999, supplying 75 percent of the building’s electricity. In addition, Fetzer is the only winery in the United States to buy corks direct from the source in Portugal and ship them in large containers, thereby eliminating packaging.

Fetzer is constantly looking for new ways to improve its environmental performance. As Voss admits, “In some areas we’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit, so it gets more challenging to find ways to improve what we do. However, there are still many areas where we can be doing a lot more, such as better insulation on our refrigerated tanks which are huge energy users. We purchase 100 percent certified green power. Our water reduction efforts continue as well. Our goal is to not send anything to the landfill, and we’re down to the last five or six percent of our waste stream, but that is still a challenge. We’ve always composted the skins, seeds and stems from the grape harvest, but now we’ve started larger scale composting programs for non-food waste, such as paper towels and all of the things that otherwise would end up in the landfill.”

While the initial inducement to take Fetzer on its triple bottom line path may have begun with top management, it’s since infiltrated the company’s culture. “Our employees who are working on the bottling line or in the winery are aware of this program, and most of the new ideas now come from them,” says Voss. “They’re the ones doing the work every day and seeing what can be improved environmentally, to save money or just to make better wine. We think it’s important to have a real education program for the grassroots employee about why this is important and what their role is.”

Fetzer’s commitments have spread not only to its employees, but also to its parent company, the Brown Forman Corp., one of the largest producers in the wine and spirits business as well as a manufacturer of diversified consumer products such as Lenox crystal and china, Dansk ware and Hartmann luggage. Last December at an executive meeting, the chairman of the board declared his commitment to running a sustainable business by instituting a summer program with Yale graduate students to examine the life cycle analysis of Brown Forman’s production stream, its inputs and outputs.

Paul Dolan, the individual credited for being most responsible for Fetzer’s journey toward sustainability, has recently stepped down from his executive position at the company after nearly three decades of leadership. In announcing his departure, Brown Forman Wines president David Dearie said, “Paul Dolan is truly one of the great leaders in the California wine industry.” As he moved into the next phase of his career, Dolan wrote a book, True to Our Roots, in which he describes his personal story as well as that of Fetzer Vineyards. His guiding principle: “You can’t predict the future, but you can create it.”

This article has been reprinted courtesy of [email protected] magazine. It first appeared in the Fall 2004 edition of that publication.