Vineyard Photos of New Growth
A bullet dodged: only minor vineyard damage from a serious California-wide frost event

Earth Day thoughts on sustainability in the world of wine

Today is the 39th annual Earth Day celebration, and a great time to assess wine's progress on its quest for sustainability.  Wine, like any other agricultural product, has environmental impacts from its vineyard and winery practices, and additional impacts from its packaging and marketing (Tyler Coleman had an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times on wine's carbon footprint).  It's great that so many wineries are talking about their efforts toward sustainability.  It's less clear to me (as I pointed out in a post from last spring) that the actions of many of these wineries match their rhetoric.

Last weekend, we participated in the Earth Day Food & Wine Festival here in Paso Robles.  This event is organized by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, who is (in their own words) "a non-profit collaboration of agriculture and natural resource professionals with a shared dedication to sustainable winegrowing".   The event was great, very well attended and organized, with attendees exceptionally interested in how each exhibitor was practicing sustainability.  When we told the people who came by our table that we were, in fact, certified organic, many were surprised that we needed to make a point of that.  They had assumed that everyone there, or most everyone, was organic.  In fact, there were only three wineries (of the fifty or so there) who are certified.

There are lots of ways that wineries can be sustainable without being organic, and I don't want to denigrate the efforts that many of these wineries are making.  Any approach that reduces any negative environmental or social impacts that a business may foster needs to be encouraged.  I think that Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards deserves particular credit for expanding the understanding of sustainability to encompass the quality of life and affordable housing through his Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers

Wine is one of the best agricultural crops, on many levels, in terms of environmental impacts.  Vines are planted and left for decades, so you don't have topsoil loss and erosion from annual tilling.  Wine grapes are generally watered very little, and with high-efficiency drip irrigation, so they're low-impact on water use or runoff.  Similarly, the best vineyards tend to be nutrient-poor, so there is little incentive to fertilize heavily.  There are very few devastating grapevine pests, so most vineyards are rarely sprayed with pesticides.  And vineyards are a sufficiently value-added commodity that once a vineyard has been planted the land is rarely redeveloped for housing or other higher-impact uses.

Still, there's a wide range of practices in the world of wine.  Most vineyards do have some pesticides applied.  Most also spray with herbicide under the vine rows to prevent competition with weeds.  Commercial fertilizers, too, see some application.  Enormous quantities of water are used in the cellar for the production of wine, as tanks, barrels and crush equipment need to be cleaned after each use.  And the environmental impacts of packaging, shipping and marketing wine are significant.

Even out in our neighborhood, you can see wineries who preach sustainability but whose practices speak of expediency.  And it's a shame.  Wine grapes have to be one of the easiest products to grow organically, as they don't require much fertilization or pest control, and weed control can be conducted mechanically (see an earlier post on organic weed control).  Winery wastewater can be recaptured and used for other purposes (as in our wetlands area).  Particularly surprising to us is that more people haven't made the plunge to get the added intensity, flavorfulness, and character of place in organically farmed wines.

I think it's great to celebrate the progress that the wine community has made in environmental consciousness, but I also think it's too bad more haven't taken the plunge to become fully organic.  And, it's high time we created objective, enforceable criteria for the designation of "sustainable" so that wineries have standards to meet and so that the designation does not become diluted into meaninglessness.