Harvest 2012 Begins!
Harvest, weeks one and two: zero to sixty in no time flat

Common-sense sustainability

I'm in New York this week, helping kick off the release of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  My hotel, like most hotels these days, has one of the signs that tells you that in order to help protect the environment, my sheets and towels -- clean when I arrived -- will be changed only every fourth day, saving untold gallons of water and pounds of detergent.  Does the hotel really care about this, or just about the dollars they're saving in water, labor and soap?  It's a Kimpton, so probably they do care.  But many less environmentally-conscious hotels do the same thing, and I think that it's one of the best examples of a common-sense approach to sustainability that can, applied on a broad level, have enormous benefits to the use of resources without any noticeable detriment in customer experience.

As much as we prize (and praise) efforts that businesses make toward environmental responsibility, I'm a realist, and believe that the only ones that really stick are those that have a net positive impact on the business's bottom line.  I don't mean that individual businesses always act in a purely profit-maximizing fashion.  But I do think that eco-conscious ideas won't be widely enough adopted to make a measurable impact if they don't also offer the business some business-friendly incentive, whether that be lower costs, increased production, or improvements in product quality. I don't think that favorable publicity or public image is enough. Look, for example, at the paltry share of US energy production that comes from solar (less than 1%) despite the appeal of renewable energy and the widespread use of incentives.

Along these lines, we've been trying to think of things that we can do that will help us use resources better while saving (or at least not costing) us money.  I can think of two good examples that we've implemented in the past few years, both of which we've been getting lots of inquiries about from other local wineries.  I'm very interested in hearing about other similar initiatives.  If you have come across other good ideas, please share them in the comments.

For years, we had ordered pallets of bottled water each month, so that guests who we took out into the vineyard in the heat of summer wouldn't wilt, and no one would get dehydrated in the midst of their day of wine tasting.  Still, I always hated seeing the pallets arrive, and thinking about the impact of the production of these water bottles and the thousands of bottles each year that ended up having to be recycled or in landfills.  So, we installed a water filtration system outside our new tasting room and ordered several hundred stainless steel canteens. Each morning, we fill up the canteens and put them on ice outside the front door:


We have another bucket nearby where we ask people to return the empty canteens, and then we wash them at the end of the day and refill them.  Sure, we lose a few that wander off into people's cars, and there's a little extra expense from the washing, but each canteen is only about four times as expensive as one water bottle, and there's no way we lose 25% of the canteens we use.  It's saving us money, preserving resources and making a point about sustainability at the expense of a little extra work for us.  I'll take that deal any time.

I would put our decision in 2010 to move to lighter-weight bottles in a similar category.  Long-time followers of the blog may remember the public debate we had about whether the winery's image was enhanced by our larger, heavier bottles and our ultimate conclusion that these larger bottles provided negative utility for our customers, making them harder to store, more difficult to lift and move, and more expensive to ship.  Two years later, I find it hard to believe that we ever thought that the larger bottles were a good idea.  Not only did the change save roughly 90,000 pounds of glass weight, and the associated higher costs of producing these larger bottles, trucking the empty glass to the winery and the filled cases from the winery, and shipping the bottles to our customers who ordered the wine, but we've stopped getting complaints about how the bottles we put our wine in don't fit in people's wine racks.  I find myself now suspicious of wines in these big bottles, thinking that they must be trying to impress with their package because of something missing on the inside.  Has this move resulted in lower sales off the shelf, or other indications that the image has suffered?  We haven't heard a single comment that would suggest it.

Sure, we do plenty of environmentally friendly things that don't save us money, most notably our commitment to organic and biodynamic farming.  But we're convinced that the benefit is in the grapes that we harvest and in the quality of the wine that we can make.  For us, the expense is worth it.  Are we happy that we're leaving our piece of land in better shape than when we found it, all while not exposing ourselves and our customers to chemicals?  Of course.  But do I expect other wineries and vineyards to necessarily make the same farming choices?  I'm not sure; it depends on the calculus that they do as to the value of the higher quality product that would result.  But I think that there are some common-sense steps toward sustainability that most any winery could implement right away, and am curious to hear any others that you've found appealing.  Even if it means asking your customers to participate in some small way... from returning an empty canteen to hanging up their once-used towel.