We Celebrate a Meaningful Honor: the 2023 California Green Medal for Environment
April 19, 2023
Last week I made the long drive up to Saint Helena to speak at Napa RISE, the event created last year by Napa Green's Anna Brittain and Martin Reyes, MW to bring focus to the urgency and opportunity the wine community has to address environmental issues like climate change, resource scarcity, and inequality. The first paragraph of the event's mission statement resonates with me:
The climate crisis is no longer imminent. It is here. It is not someone else’s problem. It is ours. Fires, drought, heat spikes will continue to strike our industry. Coming together as sustainable winegrowing leaders is no longer optional, it is imperative.
It was a huge honor for me to be invited to give a keynote speech in the heart of Napa Valley on the work that we're doing at Tablas Creek. Given Napa's long tradition at the epicenter of American wine, it's more common that speakers and ideas travel the other direction. But I think it was a reflection that we've made a commitment to sustainability central to who we are and that we've been willing to share our experience with others. We have the ability (and, I believe, the obligation) to make positive changes on the 270 acres that we own. But the reality is that this is just a tiny fraction of the acreage used to grow grapes in California. If we can inspire other people to make changes, even incremental ones, across the 615,000 acres of wine grapes in our state, that's where the impacts really start to be significant. And if wine can help lead the way toward greater sustainability within agriculture more broadly, which I think is possible, that's even more impactful. This photo from Napa RISE, where I'm flanked by the event's two founders, was taken just after my talk (note the elated relief):
The opportunity to share what we're doing with a wider audience is the reason I'm particularly proud of having received our second California Green Medal a few weeks ago. The Green Medal program was created in 2015 by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance to encourage and spread the word about the state's wine-led push to make grape growing and winemaking more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. There are four awards given each year, one each for innovation in a winery's environmental efforts, in a winery's community involvement, and in its business practices, as well as an umbrella award for demonstrating vision and leadership in promoting sustainability in all three categories.
We received the Community award back in 2016, and this time around I was hoping for the Leader award. But I'm thrilled that we received the Environment award. The CSWA produced a beautiful video in which they announced us as the award winner:
The effort of distilling down the most important lessons from our 30+ year quest toward sustainability into a 40-minutes talk helped me group our efforts into four main areas:
Farming. We've been organically farmed since our inception (certified since 2003), farming Biodynamically since 2010 (certified since 2017) and Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) since 2020. While we've continued the earlier certifications, what we love about ROC is that it is a rigorous and scientific but holistic look at the farm ecosystem. You are required to take actions that build healthy soils rich in organic matter (think cover crops, incorporating grazing flocks, composting, biochar, and reducing tilling) while also building biodiversity and developing natural controls over things like pests, weeds, and fertility. You are required to measure the impact of your choices to show that they're having the desired effect. And you're required to invest in your farmworkers -- the team that has their boots on the ground and their hands on the vines -- through paying living wages and providing ongoing training.
Resource Use. The resources that a vineyard and winery is most dependent upon are water and energy. We've invested in conserving both. For water, we've established roughly 40% of our planted acreage wide-spaced and dry-farmed, while weaning the older, closer-spaced blocks off of irrigation. In the cellar, we've converted most of our cleaning from water to steam, and capture our winery waste water in a wetland area that allows us to reuse it while providing habitat for birds and amphibians. Overall, even in a dry year like 2022 we use something like 80% less water per acre than the average Paso Robles vineyard. After a wet winter like our most recent one, we'll use even less. For energy, we've installed four banks of solar panels -- the first back in 2006 -- which together produced 402,906 kWh of energy in 2022, or 102% of our total energy use. After all, if there's a natural resource we have in abundance in Paso Robles, it's sun.
Packaging. The biggest revelation for me in the first carbon footprint analysis I did here was that packaging (and shipping, which is largely dependent upon your packaging choices) together make up more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery. That realization is what has driven us to lightweight our bottles, to invest in kegs for wholesale and our tasting room, and to make our first forays into boxed wine. It's also why we've been looking harder at how we get our wine to our customers. The carbon footprint of air shipping is something like seven times greater per mile than ground shipping. So we've been looking to refrigerated trucks to bring our wine club members' wines to warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can go ground rather than air to members nearby, all without having the wines sit in transit. Win-win.
Advocacy. As I mentioned in my intro, we want to be the pebble that starts an avalanche. That means choosing to support organizations and events (like the Regenerative Organic Alliance and Napa RISE) that make inspiring change a part of their mission. It means hosting workshops here -- both for other growers and winemakers and for the general public -- where we share what we do. It means being a resource to other vineyards and wineries who are interested in following us down this path. And it means communicating why we're making the choices that we're making, whether that be here on the blog, in our consumer marketing through email and social media, or in the voices that we amplify through our partnerships and our conversations. It also means investing in the certifications, not just the practices, to help those certifications and the practices they support make it into the mainstream.
It was interesting for me, after going back to how we communicated sustainability when we received our last Green Medal in 2016, to see how much the conversation around sustainability has changed. At that time, we essentially presented a laundry list of all the things we were working on in the categories they asked about: water use, soil & nutrition management, pest management, biodiversity & wildlife conservation, energy efficiency & greenhouse gas mitigation, human resources, solid waste management, and neighbors & community. Since that time, we've seen organizations spring up -- most notably for us the ROC program, but also the International Wineries for Climate Action and Porto Protocol focused directly on mitigating wine's contribution to climate change -- that are coordinating best practices and assembling coalitions so that membership means committing to a thought-out, coherent collection of practices. For example, anyone with an ROC seal on their label will have implemented gold standard practices within farming and resource management, as well as in animal welfare and farmworker fairness. You don't need to go through a checklist and wonder, for example, if they're conserving water as well as eliminating synthetic chemicals, or paying their workers fairly as well as embracing solar power. The rise of these organizations means we're not each making it up as we go along, and doing our best to communicate why this matters. We have a village at our backs.
One thing that hasn't changed: seven years ago, I commented that I thought the wine community was uniquely positioned to lead California agriculture toward sustainability. I still believe that's the case. Grapevines are very long lived, so vineyards can invest in long-term solutions. Most vineyards and wineries are family-owned, so there's the incentive to conserve for the future rather than just to chase the next quarterly profit. Wine is a value-added product, where the efforts we make toward sustainability -- which generally result in longer-lived vines and better grapes -- can be rewarded by higher prices in the marketplace. And the tools we have, through email, social media, and blogs like this one, give us unprecedented access to our customers and the chance to share why we believe that the sustainability investments we're making are important and offer value to them.
There are so many ways that a winery can move toward a more sustainable future. As I finished my Napa RISE talk by saying, that can feel paralyzing. But none of us should feel intimidated by all the ways that we can work toward sustainability, or even better, regeneration. No one should feel like they're failing if they don't invest everywhere. But there are no free passes, either. As Napa RISE reminds us, it's no longer optional. It's imperative.