Posted: Mar 17, 2017
The old image of a healthy vineyard as one with perfect rows of vines stretching off into the distance with nothing between them is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Because that’s just not how nature works: A vineyard devoid of perceptible life between the rows—no cover crops, not a single weed, just bars of bare soil stretching off into the distance like so many pinstripes—is a reasonably fair indication that something relatively unnatural is going on.
Happily, more and more producers have realized that chemical-intensive farming is not just bad for the environment, but it’s also likely to be a detriment to the wine itself—not to mention consumer perceptions.
This has been happening with producers of all sizes, and for some time now. What once was perceived as the provenance of smaller vineyards and wineries has, in a sense, trickled up to the bigger ones. And when the larger producers get into the business of farming grapes and producing wines in a more environmentally friendly manner, the impacts can be significant.
Consider Santa Margherita Wine Group. With an annual production of more than 19 million bottles, this Italian behemoth—whose brands include Kettmeir, Ca’ del Bosco, and the eponymous Santa Margherita, among others—has, over the past two decades, increasingly focused on making their operations more respectful of the environment. According to Vincent Chiaramonte, CEO of Santa Margherita USA Inc., some of their more significant initiatives include “complete self-sufficiency in energy from renewable sources (solar and biomass); safeguarding the biodiversity of our vineyards by reducing—and in many cases doing away with altogether—the use of synthetic chemical products, employing instead…natural compost that we produce ourselves; safeguarding fresh water using our innovative emergency irrigation patents that prevent water dispersion; recuperating the CO2 that is naturally produced during the fermentation of our wines and preventing its dispersion into the atmosphere;" and more, he explained in an email.
The benefits of a company the size of Santa Margherita Wine Group implementing changes like these are substantial, and not just as a direct result of the specific practices they employ. Indeed, the financial resources behind a company of this size afford it the opportunity to innovate in ways that ultimately benefit smaller producers, too. “Compared to other producers, Santa Margherita has great financial strength behind it, which has allowed us to heavily invest in this area,” Chiaramonte explained. Those resources mean that the innovations they develop can eventually find their way to smaller producers, resulting a virtuous cycle of sorts.
The business of wine, of course, doesn’t just happen in the vineyard. From the winery to the tasting room, opportunities exist for larger (and, of course, smaller) producers to positively impact the environment.
When large wine producers work to grow and craft wine in a more environmentally friendly manner, the benefits can be far-reaching. This solar array at J. Lohr is a good example of the scope and ambition of many large producers today (Credit: J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines).
When large wine producers work to grow and craft wine in a more environmentally friendly manner, the benefits can be far-reaching. This solar array at J. Lohr is a good example of the scope and ambition of many larger producers today (Credit: J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines).
J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, which produces approximately 18 million bottles per year, is also making a substantial impact. “We are lowering our carbon footprint substantially by powering our Paso Robles winery and tasting room with the largest solar tracking array of any winery in North America,” CEO Steve Lohr told me in an email. “We also have water saving practices in the vineyard by using pressure bombs so that the vines only get the water that they actually need.” The results aren’t just seen in the bottle and in benefits to the environment as a whole, but on the bottom line, too. “The energy generated from J. Lohr’s system will reduce CO2 emissions by 29,887 tons over 25 years. In practical terms, this is equivalent to planting 512 acres of trees (which sequester carbon from our air), or eliminating the air pollution that comes from driving 97 million road miles," he went on. "Our solar tracking array also saves us over $250,000 per year in electrical costs.”
Even the choice of bottle can be a game-changer. Champagne, for example, has historically required a heavier bottle in order to handle the pressure of the CO2 inside. Technology and careful development and testing, however, have led to a lighter bottle that is capable of working with the famously fizzy wine. When large producers like Moët & Chandon, for example, make the switch, the impact is staggering. Indeed, between 2003 and 2010, as a result of a range of initiatives (for most of that time, the newer bottle was not in use), the Champagne industry as a whole, through its Champagne Climate Plan, reduced its carbon footprint by 15%. That work is ongoing, and continues to bear fruit.
Some of the work is simply a matter of adopting the tools that nature has always provided. Alois Lageder, in Italy’s Alto Adige, has been focused on biodynamics since the 1990s, and thus far they have also convinced 40% of the approximately 90 small farmers in the region that they work with to convert to biodynamics or organics (the rest farm sustainably). In 2004, they converted their estate vineyards, approximately 125 acres, to biodynamic. (Their total annual production is around 1.2 million bottles.)
“The goal of biodynamics is to create a closed organism,” Alois Clemens Lageder explained in an email. “That’s why we started a special cooperation with farmers: As part of tradition, local mountain farmers drive their cattle, sheep, and donkeys down to the valley from the high-level pastures at the end of summer, and some of them find good grazing in our vineyards during the autumn and winter months.” The benefits are mutual: The grazing is good for the vineyards, and the farmers can raise their animals in a more sustainable manner.
Cline Cellars, which produces approximately 1.8 million bottles per year, also saw the benefits of natural grazing. As part of the Green String farming technique, which was developed by Fred Cline and soil manager Bobby Cannard, Cline uses 500 goats and 1500 sheep to help get rid of vineyard weeds and, in the summer months, they are helpful in leafing the vines, which allows the sun to more adequately ripen the grapes.
Jordan Vineyard and Winery, which produces approximately 1.2 million bottles each year (depending on the vintage), gives 75% of its sweeping 1200 acres to the natural habitat and gets a stunning 90% of its electrical needs from solar power (the rest comes from the Sonoma Clean Power Program). In Italy, the SOStain program—implemented by highly regarded producers like Tasca d’Almerita and Planeta—works to measure and improve the ecological, economic, and social impact of wine-production throughout the country.
There are, of course, potentially significant investments that have to be made. Referring to the Green String program at Cline, Fred Cline noted in an email that, “While it’s significantly more expensive (approx. 25%-35%) than conventional farming, for us it’s about a long-term view of nature, nurture, and humanity working together to grow healthy foods that we can all enjoy for years to come.” Still, savings can also be substantial. He also noted that, as the result of an on-site solar electric system, “The winery eliminated huge energy bills, flat-lined our operating budget for energy costs, and improved air quality by reducing 690,000 pounds of noxious greenhouse gases per year.”
The list of benefits goes on. And while certainly not all larger (or even smaller) producers are implementing these or other practices, the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction, with more getting on board all the time. The economic and societal benefits—not to mention the improvements in the wine—are impossible to overstate. And when large producers make the effort, their impact can be felt dramatically.
Education, in addition to financial resources, is key. “Many of today’s farmers have been trained and educated on large-farm principles—reliant on herbicides and inorganic pesticides,” wrote Fred Cline. “But times are changing as consumers become more interested in how their food is grown and raised. We firmly believe that farming sustainably makes the most sense for everyone, no matter their size and scale. Part of our mission is to help educate and train future farmers.”
Plus, it’s simply better for the future of the wine industry as a whole. “We know full well that in the absence of an unspoiled environment it will be difficult to produce excellent wine,” Santa Margherita’s Chiaramonte pointed out.
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