What we've learned about making box wine, six months and three colors later

Back in February, I published a blog that created a bit of a stir. In it, I made the case that boxes of wine (the cardboard kind normally found on grocery store shelves, not the wooden kind found in fancy cellars) deserved another look from higher-end producers. It had become stigmatized in the market, the container for what people assumed would be cheap plonk. But I asserted that there were compelling reasons to shift certain wines into boxes, most notably that it offered advantages in preservation (it can last weeks in your fridge after being opened), storage space (glass bottles are bulky, and the packaging needed to cushion them takes up yet more space), and portability (a full 3L bag-in-box weighs seven pounds while the same volume in bottles weighs eleven). Plus, and probably most importantly, because glass bottles are heavy and require lots of energy to melt and mold, a 3L wine bag-in-box offers an 84% carbon footprint reduction vs. the four glass bottles that would contain the same wine.

The blog got 54 comments, more than any other we've ever published. It spurred stories in Wine Searcher, Forbes, and even the Robb Report. I was invited to speak about the decision at the WiVi tradeshow and on the XChateau Podcast. More recently, the New York Times published an article in which wine columnist Eric Asimov pointed to our experiments with the wine boxes as a productive step forward for wine producers grappling with the environmental impact of our default package. The initial batch of 324 boxes of our Patelin de Tablas Rosé sold out four hours after we announced their release in an email to our wine club and mailing list. We made more (522 boxes) of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc in June, and despite releasing them in a much less shipping-friendly season sold them out in less than a month. This week, we put our first red into box, the 2021 Patelin de Tablas. We're planning to release it soon, and I expect it to go fast.

Cellar team making Patelin red boxes Chelsea filling Patelin red boxes

The response from our customers has been amazing. I was hoping that we'd sell out of the Patelin Rosé boxes in a month, so being out in four hours was definitely above my wildest aspirations. And the feedback we've seen from customers either directly or online has been terrific. But I've been most gratified to hear from so many other producers who are also looking to explore this lower-carbon package and want to know what we've learned. A few have even jumped in and done it, including Kobayashi Winery, who released their high-end Roussanne/Marsanne blend in a $195 box.

In the spirit of using the blog to answer the questions I get every day, here's a quick summary of what we've learned after six months:

  • The public is more open than they've ever been to alternative packaging. This first hurdle, which I assumed would be the biggest one, turned out to be no big deal. Granted, we have a direct relationship with the customers on our mailing list and in our wine club. But so do other wineries. And based on the number of people who let me know that this was their first-ever purchase of a boxed wine, we weren't dealing with people who were already converts to the package. That's amazing. And it's not just boxes. Writers as on platforms as diverse and distinguished as JancisRobinson.com, SommTV, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wine Enthusiast have recently published pieces in support of lighter-weight, lower-waste wine containers like boxes, cans, kegs, and bottles made from paper, resin, and plastic. 
  • The wholesale market is likely to be slower to adjust. When I published that February blog, I heard from a few independent retailers around the country asking if they could buy some of these boxes. We didn't make enough this first go-around to sell them in the wholesale market, but I put out some feelers with our wholesalers for next year. Although there were a few exceptions, the responses I got were not generally enthusiastic. Most boiled down to some version of, "You want people to spend how much for your box of wine? That won't work with our current box wine outlets." And I get this. A quick search on the shelves at our local Albertsons revealed a decent array of box wines... all selling for between $20 and $35. Doing the math, that translates to between $5 and $8.75 per 750ml. Our Patelin boxes, priced at $95, work out to $23.75 per 750ml bottle. I submit that this is still a great value -- bottles of Patelin sell for $28, after all -- but I could easily imagine the sticker shock of a grocery store customer wondering what this outlier was doing on a shelf at triple the price of the next-most-expensive box. If someone knows and trusts Tablas Creek already, great. That's easy to overcome. But are those people looking in the box wine section of their local retail store? Perhaps not. However, I still think that there is a market for high-end box wines in wholesale. It's just not at the traditional grocery and retail chain outlets. The sweet spot, I think, would be to market this to smaller, independent retailers who talk to their customers and would be excited to share the advantages of boxes. And to hip restaurants who don't have keg systems to pour wine by the glass. After all, the preservation and waste-reduction advantages offered by boxes could prove incredibly valuable at a restaurant level. No more pouring out the oxidized ends of bottles after two days. No more bins full of empty glass.    
  • The infrastructure to support small producers packaging in bag-in-box has a long way to come... but it could happen fast. There is a supply network that allows small- to medium-size wineries to operate with reasonable economies of scale. These include brokers who consolidate the offerings of vendors of bottles, capsules, labels and corks; mobile bottling lines that allow a winery to bottle a few weeks a year without having to invest in a line that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; and warehouses who ship wine for hundreds of wineries and can negotiate on reasonable footing with common carriers like UPS and FedEx. All those pieces still need to be developed for boxes of wine. We had one off-the-shelf option (thank you AstraPouch!) on the open market for sourcing our boxes and the bags that go inside. That's fine; you don't need to make millions of boxes to contract with a printer to make your own. We're leaning toward doing so for future runs. But if you were wondering why for this year we used the plain craft cardboard box with our label stuck onto it, well, that was the only option available. For the filling, we had a similarly restricted set of options. There are no mobile boxing lines in California. There is one in Oregon, but the minimum commitment to have them drive all the way down here was in the tens of thousands of boxes. There is a custom boxing line in the Central Valley at which you can rent space if you can bring your wine and materials to them, but their minimums were similarly high. So we were left with renting (and eventually buying) a semi-automated bag filler from Torr Industries and building all the boxes ourselves. That's time consuming (see below) and not very scalable. Finally, on the shipping end, we work with the largest fulfillment house in California to ship our wine to our consumers. They didn't have a package for boxes because they'd never done it before. We had to do a bunch of trial and error, and still aren't 100% satisfied with where we ended up. What's more, neither FedEx nor UPS have approved shipping boxes for wine in box, which means they won't take any responsibility that the product arrives intact.
  • It's time consuming doing the box construction and filling yourself. As I mentioned in the last point, because of the lack of availability and prohibitively high minimum quantities for automated box-filling lines, we had to set up a little assembly line and do it ourselves. You can see the process in the pictures at the beginning of the piece. Someone has to attach the bag to the filler, start the fill, then when it's done detach it and repeat. Meanwhile, someone else has to be assembling and taping the top of the boxes, while yet another person puts a bag into that half-assembled box and then closes and tapes up the bottom. Finally, someone has to carefully stick on the label, then put the box into its "master" case box that holds six of the finished 3L packages. Each stage takes time, on average 30 seconds to fill, 20 seconds to assemble the top of the box, 24 seconds to put the bag into the box and tape up the bottom, and 16 seconds to stick on each label. That's 90 seconds per box of labor. To make 400 boxes, as we did Monday, it takes 10 hours of work time, not counting the time it takes to set up and calibrate the machine, unpack the shipments of materials, or close up finished master cases and prepare them for transport. For our cellar team of four, making 400 3L boxes was an afternoon's work. That's a lot slower than bottling using a mobile bottling line. How much slower? We normally can bottle 2000 cases in a full day of work. The 400 3L boxes is equivalent to 133 9L cases. So if we'd done a full day, we might have finished the equivalent of 275 cases... less than 15% of the volume we could have put into bottles in that same time. That's a huge disincentive to scale up a boxed wine program.
  • The package itself is even better than we'd thought. For all the challenges, we're believers in the package. We're now roughly six months out from our first batch of boxes, and the wine is still showing beautifully when we open a new box, indistinguishable from a newly-opened screwcapped bottle. We've tried the wine after having it be open two months and four months in a fridge, and it showed fresh and pure. We'll keep testing and will know more after a year, but as far as the integrity of the wine in the box, we've been happy.

So, where does this leave us? Not all that far from where we began. We think the package is good for the wine and now have confirmation that consumers are willing to give it a try even at a higher price. We have learned that the infrastructure to support smaller producers who want to move to bag-in-box is limited. We have learned that there are lots of other wineries out there who are interested, but that many are stymied by the lack of infrastructure. And we know that the wine press is focused like never before on bigger picture questions on the sustainability of wine and the containers it comes in.

All this together seems to me like it will result in changes coming sooner than later that will make it accessible for smaller wineries to offer boxes of their wine to customers. After all, it's a business opportunity, as well as a chance to help move the wine world to a lower-carbon future. Now we wait.

Patelin Red Boxes


Why is Glass Recycling in the United States So Dismal?

Glass is a product with a number of inherent advantages. It's made from a readily-available and non-toxic source (sand). It's exceptionally stable and nonreactive, and so provides a terrific vessel for containing products like wine that you might want to store for decades. And it can be melted down and reused without any degradation of its quality, so it's a perfect product for recycling. And yet, in the United States, it's recycled less than a third of the time. This fact is one of the main reasons we've been exploring alternative packaging like the bag-in-box that we debuted for our Patelin de Tablas Rosé earlier this year. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries recycle a much higher percentage of their glass than we do here. I found our depressingly low rate of glass recycling eye-opening enough that I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few months researching why. The conclusions say a lot about what our society and industry values right now. I'm guessing and hoping that this information might be eye-opening for you as well.

Before we start investigating why, a quick review of the facts. According to the EPA, in the United States our glass recycling percentage is 31%, and non-recycled glass represents about 5% of the waste that goes into American landfills each year: 7.6 million tons of glass annually. Our recycling rate is less than half of that in Europe (74% overall) and one-third of the best-performing countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Slovenia (all over 95%). And it's actually worse than those numbers appear, since a significant percentage of the glass that is collected and classified as "recycled" in the United States is in fact crushed up and used for road base rather than melted down and used to make new glass.

The stakes are significant. Recycling glass has positive impacts not just on the waste stream, but on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, making new glass containers from recycled glass saves between 20% and 30% of the energy, roughly 50% of CO2 emissions, and offsets a greater-than 100% requirement for inputs, compared to working from raw materials. What's more, according to a 2017 survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 96% of Americans want and expect that glass be included in their recycling options.

So why, if waste glass is a usable commodity, if consumers expect to recycle it, and if doing so saves on cost compared to working from raw materials, isn't the picture here better? The consensus among experts is that it boils down to three main factors.

  • The most widely adopted recycling system in the United States is problematic for glass. Single-stream recycling, in which glass, plastic, and paper are co-mingled in a single bin for pickup and transport to a materials recovery facility (MRF), is overwhelmingly the most common community-sponsored recycling system in America. It is convenient for households, who can toss all their recyclables in one place, and for solid waste companies, who can pick them up with one truck. However, while plastic and paper are unlikely to be damaged in the collection process, glass is fragile and often shatters in the collection process, becoming difficult to sort and also contaminating the other recyclables. Plus, single-stream recycling systems encourage “wish-cycling” where consumers throw nonrecyclable products like light bulbs, plastic bags, soiled cardboard, and Styrofoam into their bins figuring that it’s better to over-recycle than to throw away something that’s recyclable. Doing so adds cost to the recycler and sometimes leads to it being less expensive to send loads to the landfill than pay the cleaning and sorting costs. By contrast, multi-stream recycling systems, in which glass, paper/cardboard, and plastic are placed in different receptacles and collected separately, bypass the MRF entirely and can usually go straight to a processing facility. The downside of these systems is that they cost more for the municipality and solid waste companies, and there is often not the political will to pass along these costs to taxpayers. But the difference is outcomes is stark: just 40% of the glass that goes into single-stream recycling systems ends up getting recycled, compared to 90% from multi-stream recycling systems.

Trash and Recycling

  • The United States is big. There are roughly 400 MRF facilities around the country. But there are many fewer glass processing facilities, which turn recycled glass containers into cullet, or usable fragments often sorted by color: just 63 nation-wide, in 30 states. There are even fewer glass manufacturing facilities: just 44, in 21 states. Processing facilities are often far away from population centers where glass is collected and MRFs built. Glass is heavy and bulky, which means that the transportation costs from MRF to processing facility can, absent other incentives, raise the price of the cullet that results high enough to outweigh the savings from using recycled glass.
  • Transparency is low, both pre- and post-consumer. First, from the post-consumer end. Most people don’t know what happens to their recyclables once they’ve been collected. Consumer surveys show that residents overwhelmingly want their communities to recycle, and reasonably assume that if they do their part their municipality will take care of the rest. But municipalities have little incentive to report on what happens after the recycling is collected. Do you know where your town’s recyclables are sorted? Or what percentage is sent to the landfill? Do you know whether the process makes or loses money for the community? I didn’t. And communities, which have largely chosen a recycling system that gives consumers a false sense of effectiveness, don’t have the incentives to make this information easy to find. Second, from the pre-consumer end. Have you ever seen a wine label display the recycled content of their glass? I don’t think I have. That’s an indication that wineries don’t think that their customers care about this information, or at least don’t care enough to displace other content in what is valuable and scarce label real estate. And bottle suppliers don’t seem to think that wineries care about this information. We pushed our glass supplier TricorBraun to get us bottles with the highest-possible percentage of recycled glass. Our antique green bottles are made with between 60% and 70% recycled material, and our flint (clear) bottles made with 35-50% recycled material. That’s the most that’s available for domestically-produced wine bottles. But that information isn’t easy to find. If you look at TricorBraun's selection of Burgundy-shaped bottles, each listing includes information about their weight, base diameter, color, neck size, height, punt height, mold number, capacity, finish, and style. But there’s no information on the bottle’s recycled content. That’s surely an indication that bottle suppliers either don’t see this as a point of differentiation or don’t have recycled content widely enough available for the resulting information to be worth sharing. And wine isn’t unique. Glass containers, whether for beverages, food, or household products, don’t typically disclose the amount of recycled content. All this makes it difficult for a consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. 

So what’s the way forward here, for consumers and wineries? I see a few possible avenues that could help.

  • Wineries: ask your bottle brokers and manufacturers about the recycled content of the bottles you buy, and demand bottles with as high a recycled content as possible. It’s clear to me that bottle producers and brokers are not sufficiently focused on increasing the recycled content of their products. If that’s the case, it’s because it isn’t being asked of them by their customers. Wineries of all sizes, but particularly larger ones, have significant market power. We’re not a large winery, but we will still buy something like 350,000 bottles this year. The larger the winery, the more power you have to move the needle. And for wineries who are a part of organizations like International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) and committed to achieving meaningful carbon footprint reductions by 2030, increasing the recycled content of your glass bottles should be a piece of the solution you’re pursuing, along with reducing the weight of those bottles and exploring alternate packaging. Because the glass bottle accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery, it also offers the most important target for improvement. 
  • Sustainability certifiers: Add a recycled glass component to your winery metrics if you haven’t already. Most California wineries are a part of a sustainability program. But at least our local program (SIP Certified) doesn’t appear to have any mention of using recycled glass in your bottles in its protocols. I have my issues with sustainability programs, which I’ve shared at length here and elsewhere, but they remain a powerful tool in incentivizing the high percentage of wineries who participate in them to make incremental positive changes. (And wineries, if you’re a part of a sustainability program that doesn’t include anything about this, ask them why.)
  • Consumers: Ask the wineries that you patronize about the recycled content of their bottles. If you have a direct relationship with any wineries, reach out to them directly. Wineries are unusual consumer products in that most do have direct relationships with many of their customers. But if you don’t, ask your local retailer. If they don’t know, they can ask the distributor. The more people along the supply chain who are inquiring about this information, the more pressure there will be on bottle suppliers to use more recycled content, the more market there will be for recycled glass, which will make it more attractive for communities to recycle their waste glass rather than sending it to the landfill.
  • Everyone: Push your communities to be more transparent about the outcomes of their recycling programs. This is particularly important if you’re a part of a single-stream recycling system. If the recyclables are being sorted and used at a high rate, that’s great. But it’s likely not. If not, push for multi-stream recycling, or at least better education on why materials aren’t being used. Is it because of contamination? If so, encourage your community to share information about the costs of “wish-cycling”. Is it a cost decision? Find out what it would take to implement a multi-stream recycling program. There are real challenges here, particularly with the market for recycled commodities still developing. But the status quo, where local governments are quietly misleading their citizens about the efficiency of their recycling programs, isn’t viable.

We know that we can do better, because European countries have shown the way, typically with a combination of multi-stream recycling (to produce good supply) and industry mandates for recycled content (to ensure that there is demand). Neither of those are impossible here; they're just a question of focus and political will. Yes, distances are shorter in Europe; the more densely populated continent means that the shipping costs between consumer collection and glass processing are less. But that’s an incremental difference. If there were more demand from consumers and beverage producers, there would be more recycled glass products available. And that would create a positive feedback loop that would encourage better recycling decisions at the community level.

Glass RecyclingPhoto modified from the original on Wikimedia Commons by user Ecovidrio

We can do the same, or something similar, here. Let’s get to work.


Why we believe the time is right for a $95 box of wine

Last summer, I wrote a blog I called A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress in which I broke down how we stacked up against the baseline California winery across all the components that make up our carbon footprint, from vineyard to winery to packaging and transport of finished wine. Overall, we look good against the baseline, thanks to the combination of organic farming with minimal outside inputs, solar power, and the lightweight glass that we use for all our bottles. My rough estimate is that we have about 60% of the carbon footprint of the baseline.

One of the things that was really driven home to me as I did this research was the importance of the packaging in wine's overall environmental footprint. According to the assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) in 2011, which is what I used as my baseline, more than half of California wine's impact is due to the packaging in glass bottles. And that's not surprising; glass is energy-intensive to make and transport, as it requires high temperatures to melt and mold and is heavy to transport. Moving to lightweight glass reduces a winery's footprint by 10%, while using heavy bottles adds 10% to that tally, according to the CSWA's report:

CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight

In the piece, I did mark us down a bit for not using the 3L bag-in-box, which is by far the most effective package for reducing wine's carbon footprint. But I admit that I didn't take it particularly seriously, as the market for the 3L wine boxes is still (at least in the United States) almost entirely a bottom shelf one, with boxes topping out around $30 retail. Given that our least expensive wine at the time was $25, and the box contains four bottles, I didn't think it was an option for us.

After I published this piece, I got a number of interesting comments that made me rethink that position. A great example is one on my personal Facebook page from friend and former wine blogger Jason Mancebo:

Really great effort here, Jason. Tons of respect for your efforts and transparency in that effort! One thing that rubs me a bit wrong is: ...."we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all, and likely won't as long as it still carries the stigma of grocery store generic."
 
Leadership requires risk and without risk, this (stigma) won't ever change. A winery of your size and your commitment to environmental issues is a perfect "Poster Child" to change the stigma. As a consumer I wish I had more choice on quality wine than the 750 glass bottle. Cans are great, but limited selection and volume requirements = lower quality. the 3L would be great, especially to ship for @home consumption. Go for it! Be the change!!

Since then, I've found my own feelings around the 3L bag-in-box evolving. And Jason was right; the issues with the format -- at least for wine made for short-term consumption -- are almost entirely about consumer perception. After all, think of the advantages:

  • Preservation. When you open a bottle of wine, the liquid inside is exposed to oxygen, and starts the clock ticking on the destructive effects of oxidation. If you're careful, and re-cork or re-cap the wine promptly and put it back in the fridge, you can get a week or so of life. If you forget and leave the half-empty bottle on your dinner table, it's likely to be compromised by morning. But not in a bag-in-box. Because the bag containing the wine deflates inside the box as you pour wine out of its spigot, oxygen never comes into contact with what remains inside, and you can keep an open box in good shape for weeks or a few months in your fridge.
  • Storage space. It's amazing how much space and weight are taken up by the bottles and the fact that because they're round and breakable they can't even sit snugly next to each other. When we got a look at our first 3L boxes they looked so small that we thought the vendor had sent us 1.5L boxes. It wasn't until we measured out three liters of water and filled one up that we realized that it was three liters after all. That saved space is extra room in your fridge and in our winery and warehouse.
  • Portability. Liquid is heavy, but wine bottles are too. The 470 gram (1 lb.) bottles that we use are among the lightest on the market. Even so, they end up making up nearly 40% of the finished 1,220 gram (2.7 lbs.) weight of a filled bottle. Four full bottles together weigh nearly 11 pounds. The full 3L bag-in-box weighs less than seven. That's easier to lift and take with you, sure, but it's also cheaper to truck and ship. Plus... glass is breakable. Liquid in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box? Not so much.
  • Footprint. The CSWA chart that I shared above makes the case clearly. Compared to the packaging required to put that same wine in 750ml glass bottles, the carbon footprint of the bag-in-box package is 84% less, and the carbon footprint of distributing this lighter, more compact package is 60% less. The CSWA study didn't specifically look at the footprint of delivering direct-to-consumer (DTC) wines, but I'm sure the savings of moving to bag-in-box is similar if not greater than the savings via distribution, given all the packaging that's required to ship glass bottles safely via companies like UPS and FedEx and the greater per-bottle transportation footprint of air shipping compared to palletized wholesale transport by truck or rail.

Of course, there are unknowns about this package too. Is it good for long-term aging of wine? I'd doubt it. Is the package recyclable? The boxes are, although the plastic pouches inside are not in most places. (Of course, in America our glass recycling percentage is a disheartening 31%, so this still means a lot less trash headed to the landfill on average). And will people buy it at a price that allows higher-end wineries to adopt the package? I floated on Twitter that we were thinking about trying it with our new vintage of Patelin Rosé and got a heartwarmingly enthusiastic set of responses.

It seems like it's time to find out the answer to the question "will people buy a high-end wine in a box". To that end, we've decided to dip our toe into this water by diverting 100 cases of the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé into 300 3L bag-in-box packages. The Patelin Rose seems like a great place to start, since it's a wine that we suggest that people drink in the near-term anyway. A few photos of the process. First, Austin at the filling machine (left) and Chelsea building boxes (right):

Box of rose filling

Box of rose making boxes

Then Gustavo putting on labels (left) and the finished box (right)!

Box of rose labeling

Box of rose finished

Since we're paying less for the packaging, we'll be passing along that savings to customers, pricing each box at $95 instead of the $112 that the four bottles would cost. Because it takes up less space and weighs less, we can pass on shipping savings too, counting each box as two bottles for shipping rather than four.  

Will that be enough to tempt people who might not have dreamed of buying a box of wine? I hope so. For this batch, we're only making it available for sale direct, i.e. on our website and in our tasting room, so we can explain directly to the customers who might be interested why we've made this choice. If it works, we'll do it with some additional wines going forward. If it really works, we might even make enough next year to sell some wholesale. After all, there was a time when screwcaps were considered appropriate only for cheap wines. And when wine in keg, to be ordered by the carafe or glass, was unheard of. But in both cases we decided that we trusted our followers enough to try, because we thought that the decisions were the right ones for the wines. In this case, we think it's an important approach to try both for the wine, and for the planet.

Patelin Rose Box with Amanda Jason and Neil

No time like the present to find out if we're right. If you're on our mailing list, look for an email next week announcing its release.


What do you do with a vineyard flock when it can't be in the vineyard? Regenerate your forests.

In the winter, when the cover crops are tall and green, having sheep in the vineyard is pretty easy. There's plenty of food for them. The dormant vines aren't of interest to the flock, who focus on the grasses and weeds. You build up your soils without having to bring in outside fertilizer. You minimize your tractor passes and the soil compaction and diesel exhaust that come with them. This scene, from a few years back, is typical:

Losing the sheep in the cover crop - Roussanne block

The cumulative impact of the sheep, year after year, has been transformational for our soil. The roughly 200 sheep we have drop some 750 pounds of manure per day. All that organic matter provides nutrients to the vines, but also increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Given that we don't have a water table at any depth that roots can get to, our ability to dry-farm is dependent upon how much water our surface layers can hold. The calcareous soils that led us to choose this property are a great start. But the sheep have been a big help here too, and are key to our ability to farm regeneratively, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil.

The challenge comes in the summer months, when they can't be in the vineyard because they would happily eat the leaves and fruit off the vines. Plus, it stops raining in April and as the grasses dry out the flock's food gets scarcer. If you have to bring in feed from offsite it can get expensive. Plus, sheep are natural wanderers, and can develop health problems if they're kept in the same small area day after day. So, what to do? For most of the past decade, they summered on the block we call Jewel Ridge, which we purchased in 2011 but hadn't started planting until recently. But over the last two years we planted about 25 acres of the 60 or so that were cleared there, reducing our summer grazing space by nearly half.

One resource that we do have is our forest land. It's harder to run sheep in the forest than it is in an open space, because setting up the fences requires more work. But there's nothing about sheep that makes them less happy to be in the forest, and nothing about the forest that makes sheep an unwelcome addition to the ecosystem. Far from it. According to our Shepherd Dane Jensen, hundreds of years ago the forests in California's Central Coasts would have been home to massive herds of grazing animals like deer and elk, and those grazers played a big role in keeping the forests healthy. Rather than let grasses and shrubs accumulate, competing with the larger trees, grazers turned that biomass into manure, which got incorporated into the soil. With the arrival of European settlers, land was subdivided and fenced off, the migratory herds of grazing animals hunted for food, and fires (another natural part of the ecosystem) repressed. Forests got denser and shrubbier, which in the 21st Century combine with the warming climate to make the fires that do start more dangerous and destructive than ever.

Re-enter our flock of sheep. Last summer we started grazing them in some limited forest areas that we could enclose. This summer, we've started cutting fence lines through the denser growth so they can get into areas we couldn't touch last year. It's been amazing watching them work. They clear the invasive grasses, the shrubs, even the poison oak. This photo shows them in their first day in a new block, attacking the poison oak with gusto:

Sheep grazing on poison oak

After a few days, they've turned those dry surface plants into manure, and eliminated some of the competition for the oaks. Plus, their work will help that land absorb more of this winter's rains, which will further strengthen the oaks. Check out this "after" photo of the flock in a forest block, with Bjorn the Spanish mastiff typically sleepy as he usually is in daytime. At night he's on high alert, protecting his flock from mountain lions and coyotes:

Sheep grazing in the forest with Bjorn

In the vineyard, we move the flock daily, mimicking the natural patterns where herds or ruminants stay together for safety (the origin of the term "mob grazing") but migrate based on the pressure of predators so that they don't stay anywhere long. In the forests, we enclose a somewhat larger area of a few acres at a time, but still move them every few days, making sure we don't over-graze any section or neglect any others. We know that doing so is good for the forests, and just as importantly, good for our fire risk.

Based on the questions I get, I think that a lot more wineries would have sheep to help with weeding in the winter if they could think of what to do with them in the summer. Here's one suggestion: look to your forests.


Aspen-inspired reflections on what it means to be a sustainable winery

This past weekend I flew to Aspen to participate for my first time in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It was my first work flight since January of 2020 and the only out-of-state visit and only wine festival I have planned this year. I've been cautious in this ongoing pandemic both what I commit Tablas Creek to and what I choose to participate in myself. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I'd been invited by Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle1 to join him on a panel with the title "Wines for a Healthy Planet". It was a chance to talk through the many permutations of sustainable, organic, Biodynamic, Regenerative Organic, natural, and more, in front of as high a profile audience as any in the world of wine. We've been a part of (or at least adjacent to) most of those categories over the years, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with Ray about what it means to be a responsible winery in this day and age. And yet because of the many different ways in which the wines Ray chose advance the goal of a healthier planet, the discussion went places that I hadn't expected, and I come back to California with some new inspirations on how we might continue to evolve our farming and our operations. I wanted to share those thoughts while they're fresh in my mind, and encourage any readers to share other innovative ways that have come across their radar that might go beyond a farming certification.

Jason Haas and Ray Isle at Aspen Food & Wine 2021

I'll follow Ray's lead and share the eight wines in the lineup, in the order in which we tasted them, with some thoughts on how each advances the discussion.

  • 2019 Frog’s Leap Rossi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. John Williams, Proprietor and Winemaker at Frog's Leap in Napa Valley, is an inspiration of mine, famous for his early adoption of organic farming, his no-nonsense approach to what really matters in Biodynamics, and his embrace of dry farming. He's been outspoken about how all three are how he's made wines of soul and balance in an era when most of his neighbors were chasing power unapologetically. As a pioneering advocate for natural ways of making wine, John's Sauvignon Blanc was a great way to start. [Note, if you haven't read John's lovely piece "Thinking Like a Vine" you should.]
  • 2019 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc. I got to debut our newest vintage of Esprit Blanc next. I've spoken plenty about our own approach to farming and to building a responsible business, but focused in my remarks at the seminar to explaining the significance of the Regenerative Organic Certification that we received last year. More on this in a bit.
  • 2016 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay. New Zealand has been a world leader in sustainable farming practices, with 96% of its acreage included in its nationwide sustainability program. Pyramid Valley takes that one step further by implementing Biodynamics, producing this brilliant Chardonnay from their limest0ne-rich site in North Canterbury. You could taste in the vivacity of the wine the health of the vines and their expressiveness of their soils. 
  • 2019 J Bouchon Pais Salvaje. OK, here things got weird and even more fun. Pais (known in America as Mission) is an ancient grape variety, likely Spanish in origin, that was brought to the New World by Spanish missionaries to produce sacramental wine five centuries ago. It has largely lost favor in recent decades as new varietals arrived here, but this wine was unique in my experience. Made from wild grapevines more than a century old, seeded (presumably) by birds and growing as a wild grapevine would, climbing trees in a riverbed in southern Chile, these vines have never been cultivated, irrigated, pruned, or otherwise intervened with. They're picked by workers on tall ladders leaned against the trees. Their website has a photo. Truly a wine made without impacts on its environment! The wine itself was bright and spicy, showing its 50% carbonic fermentation, rustic and refreshing. 
  • 2018 Cullen Red Moon Red. From the Margaret River region in Australia, Cullen has been organic since 1998 and Biodynamic since 2003. Beyond that, they're the first winery I know of to be certified as carbon-neutral, achieved both by reductions in their own footprint (the glass bottle they use is the lightest I've ever felt) and through the funding of reforestation programs and a biodiversity corridor project. The wine, a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot, was minty, spicy, and light on its feet, about as far away from the jammy stereotype of Australia as it's possible to get.   
  • 2018 Tenuta di Valgiano Palistorte Rosso. Made in Tuscany from a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah, like many of the other wines the Tenuta di Valgiano was organically and Biodynamically grown. But unusually, it was made from a vineyard entirely surrounded by forest, isolated from other vines that might have been treated in a more industrial way. The idea of chemical drift isn't one that gets talked about much in grapegrowing, the wine gave Ray a chance to share stories of other vineyards that saw their border rows of vines defoliated by herbicide sprays.
  • 2016 Torres Grans Muralles. The Torres family of wineries, stretching from Spain to Chile to Sonoma, is one of the world's largest family-run producers. They're also leaders in sustainability, particularly in their work co-founding International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), whose participants commit to reducing their carbon footprint 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. This wine shows another piece of their commitment to how wineries can have positive impacts on their communities, sourced from ancient vineyards in the Spain's Conca de Barberà region discovered as a part of a conservation effort Familia Torres began in the 1980s, in which they placed ads in small-town newspapers looking for farmers with plots of old, overgrown grapevines. This led to the discovery of two heritage varieties (Garró and Querol) which combine with Garnacha, Cariñena, and Monastrell to produce this unique wine.
  • 2017 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a classic. Spottswoode was one of first wineries in Napa Valley to begin farming organic in 1985 and has been certified since 1992. They're now Biodynamic certified as well, a B Corp (the first, winery, I believe, to achieve this), and participants in programs like 1% for the Planet and IWCA. Their "One Earth" list of initiatives is an inspiring example of how a winery can make a positive impact in multiple ways. But just as important is the example they set. Far from environmental sensitivity being something for the fringes of wine, all these efforts help them make a superlative version of America's most famous and popular grape.

I asked Ray for how he chose this diverse collection of wines. His reply emphasizes that while farming is important, it's not just about that:

“I did this seminar because I wanted to highlight how wineries around the world—literally in every wine region—have become more and more invested in agricultural and winemaking practices that are good for the environment, rather than potentially detrimental. Whether that’s through organic viticulture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, or climate-conscious programs for reducing a wineries’ carbon, water or energy footprints, there’s a global shift in wine right now towards this sensibility. I feel like the producers I chose—Spottswoode, Pyramid Valley, Frog’s Leap, Tenuta di Valgiano and others, including of course Tablas Creek—are at the forefront of these efforts. Plus, they all make excellent wine; that’s pretty vital, too.”

I come away from this experience convinced that the biggest sustainability challenge for the generation of wineries that, like us, have adopted organic or Biodynamic farming in the last few decades is going to be to improve our business practices. We will of course continue to invest in our farming. I'm proud that Tablas Creek is helping lead the way on some of these initiatives, specifically the work that we've done to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status. But as I wrote when I published the results of a carbon footprint self-audit in May, the challenges of improving packaging and energy use and water conservation will loom large over the wine community in coming years.

After being a part of this seminar, I have a bunch more ideas running around in my head. Thanks, Ray.

Footnote:

  1. If you'd like to get to know Ray a little (and you should) he was my guest in one of my Instagram Live conversations this summer. Our archived conversation can be found here.

Gustavo's Garden: Benefits for Our Vineyard... and Our Team

By Ian Consoli

The first summer I worked at Tablas Creek, I was pleasantly surprised to find a constant stream of fresh fruits and vegetables appearing in the kitchen. It didn't take long to find out that the man delivering these treats was Gustavo Prieto. Gustavo has worked in our tasting room, vineyard, and cellar; you can learn about his many talents in an interview we published in 2017.

Another summer is here and, once again, fruits have started making their appearance in the lunchroom. Having enjoyed the fruits of his labor this long, I sat down with Gustavo to hear his philosophy on gardening, how it got started, how his work in the staff garden also benefits the vineyard, and what advice he has for home gardeners.

Gustavo standing in the garden

Please remind our audience where you grew up and how you came to be at Tablas Creek.

I was born and raised in Chile. I went to college at Cal poly San Luis Obispo. I earned a degree in fruit science, which brought me into agriculture. I went back to Chile after earning my degree and worked in produce imports and exports. I moved back to the central coast later and decided to switch careers, venturing into the wine business. A couple of years in, I started hearing about Tablas Creek. Pretty much all the roads lead to Tablas, you know? Every single person that I talked to said, just go to Tablas. So I came one day and tasted the wine, and that was it for me; I applied for a job and started in the tasting room. That was my beginning 14 years ago.

What is your role at Tablas Creek?

I run the biodynamic program at Tablas and keeping it moving forward. That's my primary responsibility, but I also work in the cellar during harvest and various projects in the vineyard. I'm in charge of all the fruit trees, watering, pruning, harvesting, et cetera. In the summer I plant a garden to be enjoyed by the employees.

And that is why we're here, to talk about that garden. Did you have a garden growing up?

Not at my house, but my grandparents'. Both of my grandparents were farmers in Chile. I remember seeing these beautiful, huge gardens, a couple of acres planted with everything from corn to strawberries, cherries, apples, peaches; you name it. Also, greens and summer stuff like squash and zucchinis. Their gardening actually fed a big family, so it was needed and provided fresh fruit and produce for a large number of people. That's the way things were done at the time. From since I can remember, I was working in the garden early in the morning, with the dew on the ground, getting my feet wet, and plucking the strawberries fresh from the plant. I think that planted the seed early on for me to decide to study agriculture.

Do similar crops grow here to Chile, are there some that grow better there than they do here and vice versa?

It's basically the same because we share the same climate due to being in similar latitudes. It is a Mediterranean climate like we have in California, so we can grow the same things here that they can grow there. We're pretty big in avocados, table grapes, and apples.

What do you have growing right now?

We have a lot of tomatoes, which is great, they look absolutely beautiful; lots of corn also. Corn and tomatoes are some of the main things that we grow here. We have different kinds of chili peppers, squash, zucchini, melons, watermelons, a little bit of basil, and pumpkins so that they will be ready for Halloween. Basically, summer crops, plants that do well with the soils and need a lot of heat.

Gustavo picking in the garden

Is there anything that grows particularly well?

From my experience, corn is beautiful every year. Tomatoes do fantastic. Zucchini grows well everywhere; that's not a secret. Squash is the same; they thrive in this dry heat. I planted garlic early this year, very beautiful garlic with nice big heads. I found onions do quite well in these soils. Last year was our first year planting them, and I was impressed by how well they dealt with the temperature. They kept growing through the summer, which they're not meant to, but they did well, and we enjoyed them throughout the season.

How much of the land is dedicated to growing crops?

A quarter-acre.

What do you do with all the crops you grow?

Everything is for the consumption of the employees at Tablas. We distribute everything when they're ready. We just harvested the last of the cherries, and most of the employees got a handful to take home. We'll bring some peaches next and maybe our first nectarines, but the whole idea is to share with everybody.

How does having a garden benefit the vines at Tablas Creek?

It helps bring more diversity to the farm. We're biodynamic, organic, regenerative, and the garden is another level to complement what we've already been doing. The fruit trees, for example, have been planted for many years now, olive trees, fruit trees, et cetera. It also creates a habitat. When corn blooms, the bees go crazy. Everything else blooms and attracts bees, beneficial insects, and different pollinators, bringing more and more diversity to the farm.

What advice do you have for aspiring gardeners to start?

Go for it. Be curious and try things. You will learn from others by asking questions, like what grows best in your area and potential issues. The resources are out there as well. You can get help from the local ag commissioner and farm advisors; all of those people will be glad to help you. Also, don't be intimidated by it. Some people say they don't have a green thumb, but it's like driving; you learn, you mess up a little bit initially, but stick with it, and you will get it.

Any closing thoughts?

Yes, my wife, Heidi Peterson, is a big inspiration for me. My first personal garden was here in California, and she was the one that inspired me to start. She has been gardening forever and shared her local knowledge with me. She really taught me a lot. Putting what I learned growing up in Chile with what Heidi had to offer has allowed me to run the garden here at Tablas Creek.

Gustavo smiling in the garden


A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress

When you consider a winery's environmental footprint, what do you think of? Their vineyard certifications? Whether they're using recycled materials? How well insulated their winery building is? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the largest contributors to a winery's carbon footprint1 are the source of their energy, the weight of their bottles, the production of fertilizers and other inputs that go onto the vineyard, the transportation of the bottled wine, and the cover cropping and tillage decisions the vineyard makes.⁠

This fact was driven home to me by a series of really interesting conversations about wine and sustainability over on Twitter recently which barely touched on wineries' vineyard practices. Kathleen Willcox published a great article on liquor.com titled Why Packaging Is Wine’s New Sustainability Frontier in which she highlights what a large piece of the total environmental footprint of wine comes from its packaging. The same day, Johan Reyneke, the South African winemaker whose commitment to organic and biodynamic farming has made him an example in his homeland and around the world, shared a review by Jancis Robinson, MW which praised his Sauvignon Blanc but called him out for the dissonance of using a notably heavy bottle for a wine made with such environmental sensitivity:

Reyneke's owning of the criticism and pledge to do better produced a lot of questions from other posters wondering what the relative importance of inputs like bottles, vineyard practices, winery design, and transportation each produced. In response, Jancis shared the below graphic, taken from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's 2011 assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint of CA WineThe graphic shows the huge importance of the glass bottle in a winery's overall carbon footprint, but also highlights other areas where a winery seeking to improve should look. It spurred me to go, category by category, and examine how we rate. In each case, I've estimated our own footprint compared to the "average California winery" benchmark noted in the CSWA graphic, with an explanation of how I got to my assessment. Our goal, in a perfect world, would be to get to zero, which would represent a 100% savings vs. the benchmark. It's good to have goals!

Note that these are self-assessments; we will be looking to do a third party carbon audit sometime in the next year. I'll be interested to know how my own assessments are contradicted or confirmed by the official ones. But this is at least a start. If you're interested in how I've assigned grades, I've given us an "A" if our own footprint in a particular category represents a better than 40% savings over the benchmark average. I've given us a "B" when our practices produce a savings between 15% and 40%. As it would in real life, a "C" represents an "average" performance, between a 15% savings and 15% extra footprint. A "D" represents between 15% and 40% extra footprint, while an "F" grade would be a footprint more than 40% greater than the benchmark.

In the Vineyard: Overall Grade A- (Benchmark: 34; Our use: 17; Savings: 50% vs. benchmark)

  • Bio-geochemical field emissions: B- (Benchmark: 17; our use: 13) The CSWA's footnote defines this category as "Footprint associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of natural bio-geochemical processes and impacted by local climate, soil conditions, and management practices like the application of nitrogen fertilizers." As we do not apply any nitrogen fertilizers, our impact here is likely smaller than average. We know because of our Regenerative Organic Certification audit that our soils are adding carbon content to the soil. The reduction in tillage and the resulting deeper root systems and more complicated microbial systems that we have been able to accomplish in recent years thanks to our flock of sheep likely also puts our total below average. On the negative side, sheep are themselves sources of methane, which likely mitigates some of the other positive contributions they make. I will be interested to learn the balance here when we get our formal audit. Does being carbon-negative outweigh the environmental impact of the flock's methane? I am less certain of this grade than any other in this list. Are we doing "A" work? Maybe! Is it actually a "C"? I hope not!
  • Fuel production and combustion: D+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 4) Although the sheep have allowed us to reduce tractor passes, organic farming still requires more tractor work than conventional chemical farming. We also use propane in the spring to power our frost fans, though we've been lucky that we haven't had many near-freezing spring nights in recent years. Our reduced tillage in recent years is a positive factor. But I'm guessing we're at or below average in this one category compared to the average California winery. Luckily, it's a small factor overall. 
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 4; our use: 0) About the only use of electricity in the vineyard is to power our well pumps. Given that we irrigate minimally compared to most wineries and that more than a third of our vineyard is dry-farmed, I'm guessing our power draws are well below average. But, most importantly, we expect that the installation of our fourth bank of solar panels last month will get us to 100% solar powered. So, this (and our winery power needs) should be near zero.
  • Raw materials production: A (Benchmark: 10; our use: 0) Because we've been farming organically since our inception, our carbon footprint for the production and transport of materials like fertilizer and pesticides has always been low. What's more, we have been working to eliminate one outside input after another in recent years. Our sheep have allowed us to eliminate even the application of organic fertilizers or outside compost. Our cultivation of beneficial insect habitat has reduced our need to intervene against pests to near zero. We've even been producing our own Biodynamic preps on site. I think we've basically eliminated this category of carbon input at Tablas Creek.

In the Winery: Overall Grade A (Benchmark: 15; Our use: 2; Savings: 87% vs. benchmark)

  • Fuel production and consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 1) We've moved entirely to electric-powered forklifts in the winery, which means they're fueled by our solar array. Same with our refrigeration. Really the only fuel we're using in production now is the transport of grapes to the vineyard, and with our estate vineyards located at the winery and our purchased grapes representing only about 30% of our production, I figure that our use of fuel is 80%-90% less than the California average.
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 0) The fourth bank of solar panels here, as in the vineyard, should reduce this to zero this year. I've said for a long time that if there is a natural resource that Paso Robles has in abundance, it's sun. This feels like an area in which every winery should be investing; there are good tax credits available to help with the up-front costs, and the return on the investment even without them is in the 15-year range.   
  • Other winery: C+ (Benchmark: 1; our use: 1) The CSWA footnote lists "transport of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, raw material production, refrigerant losses, and manufacturing waste treatment" in this category. We don't use much in the way of raw materials compared to the average winery (no yeasts, nutrients, etc., very few new barrels, no chemicals or additives). And our winery wastewater treatment is done using a wetland area that likely has positive carbon offsets from the water plants compared to an average winery wastewater facility. But I'm sure we have some refrigerant losses.

In our Packaging: Overall Grade B+ (Benchmark: 38; Our use: 25; Savings: 34% vs. benchmark)

  • Glass bottle: A-. (Benchmark: 29; our use: 17) I wrote a few years back about how our switch to lightweight bottles in 2009 saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass in nine years. I'm proud of the analysis that led to that choice, and also of the aesthetics of the bottle that we chose. And bottles make an enormous difference. In the CSWA's analysis, they published a graph (below) showing that the switch to a lightweight bottle would save 10% on a winery's overall carbon footprint, all by itself. That is because glass bottles are energy-intensive to produce and add significant weight to the product, which increase transportation costs later. Our bottles are also produced in America, at a factory outside Seattle. Given how many bottles are produced either in Europe, China, or Mexico, with the added costs of transport to California, I feel good about this. I also give us a little bump in our grade for this metric because we have for the last decade been selling a significant percentage (roughly a quarter most years until 2020) of our Patelin de Tablas in reusable stainless steel kegs, which Free Flow Wines (our kegging partner) estimates results in a 96% reduction in that package's CO2 footprint. So why don't we get an "A"? Even though our bottles are quite light, there are now even lighter bottles available than our 465 gram bottle. And we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all. I'm investigating that more seriously, although a move to that format would come with some significant challenges... not least that we'd be a wild outlier in terms of price; even our Patelin de Tablas would be double the price of the most expensive 3L bag-in-box at our local supermarket. But still, while there is more to do, I feel good about how we score in this, the most impactful of categories.

    CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight
  • Corrugate case box: B- (Benchmark: 6; our use: 5) We do use corrugated cardboard case boxes, and haven't really dug into this as a potential source of savings. We do, however, use entirely 12-bottle case boxes, unlike many higher-end wineries. There were a few years in the late 2000s where we switched our Esprit de Tablas tier of wines into 6-bottle cases, which essentially doubles the amount of cardboard needed per bottle. We made the decision back in 2012 to go back to all 12-bottle cases, and I'm happy we did. 
  • Other packaging: C+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 3) We don't do anything particularly unusual with other packaging. We use labels, capsules, and either corks or screwcaps. Our ratio of corks to screwcaps is probably about the industry average. At least we aren't using any synthetic corks, made from plastic in a manufacturing process. I feel like we can find some savings here with a little harder look.

Transport of Bottled Wine: Overall Grade D+ (Benchmark: 13; Our use: 16; Extra footprint: 23% of benchmark)

  • Transport of bottled wine: D+ (Benchmark: 13; our use: 16) I wish that the CSWA had broken this out in more detail. On the one hand, our lighter bottles give us savings here. On the other hand, the 65% of our production that we sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) means that a higher percentage of our wine than the industry average is shipped via UPS and FedEx. Those DTC shipments require extra cardboard in the form of sturdy pulp shippers, and are in many cases being shipped via air rather than ground. We don't feel we have a choice here given that wine is perishable and fragile, and it needs to get to our customers in good condition. But I worry about the environmental costs. We have started, for our wine club shipments, sending the wine that will go to customers east of the Rockies via truck to staging warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can be packed into shipping boxes and shipped ground. But that hasn't proven feasible for our daily shipping. I do give us some credit for eliminating styrofoam packaging more than fifteen years ago, but I think it's likely that any winery that sells two-thirds of their production direct is going to have an above-average carbon footprint from wine transport given that DTC sales made up just 10% of total sales of California wine pre-pandemic. 

Adding up my back-of-the-envelope assessments leads to a total footprint estimate of 60% of the baseline (18+1+25+16). Our lighter bottles and solar arrays account for most of that improvement.2 That's pretty good, but it's clear that we have additional work that we can be doing across our business. My biggest questions, which I hope that our audit will help answer, revolve around whether we can sequester enough carbon with better viticulture to offset a significant amount of what happens after the wine gets bottled. If we're going to get our carbon footprint really low, can we do that with our own property? Or have we made most of the improvements we can already, and will we need to look toward offsetting the carbon in a different way?

I don't know the answer to this yet, but I'm committed to finding out.

Final Grade: B+/A- (Benchmark: 100; Our use: 60; Savings: 40% vs. benchmark)

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to recognize that carbon footprint is just one measurement of care of the environment. Others, which I feel we do well on, include fostering of plant, animal, insect and microbial biodiversity; reduction of non-biodegradable waste; protection of habitat; and elimination of chemicals and toxins.
  2. If I were a winery starting fresh at looking at my carbon footprint, installing solar arrays and reducing the weight of my bottles would absolutely be my first avenues of attack. Both offer immediate returns on investment both environmentally and financially. 

Prohibition's legacy and the marginalization of organic wine

Introduction
Prohibition may have ended nearly 90 years ago, but its legacies remain, often hidden, in the way that wine and other alcoholic beverages are marketed and sold in America. I've written about the unintended consequences of the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition and as a side effect carved out an exception to the Commerce Clause that has made every step forward in the fight for direct shipping a battle between actors in the winery, wholesale, and retail spheres. Another effect is that because there is an express prohibition in the federal standards from any statement that might "suggest a relationship between the consumption of alcohol, wine, or any substance found within the wine, and health benefits or effects on health" a winery can't talk in advertising or on their website about the studies that show links between red wine and heart health.

Understanding the NOP Standards
One consequence of Prohibition's legacy is in how wine is treated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The organic labeling standards, as written for most products, contain four levels of organic purity. In descending order:

  • 100% Organic
    • All ingredients, processing aids, and facility must be certified organic
    • Can use the organic seal 
  • Organic
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic, non-agricultural ingredients are allowed
    • Can use the organic seal
  • Made with Organic
    • At least 70% of ingredients must be certified organic
    • Must state the ingredients that are organic ("made with organic apples")
    • Cannot include USDA organic seal anywhere or represent finished product as organic
  • Specific Organic Ingredients
    • For use of organic ingredients in a non-organic product. Does not need to be certified.
    • Organic can only be used in ingredients list and not on front panel
    • Cannot use the organic seal or state organic anywhere other than the ingredients list.

How Wine Is Treated Differently: Cue Strom Thurmond
Wine is a pretty easy product to measure, as it's typically more than 99% grapes and winemaking additions (yeasts, nutrients for that yeast, acid, and an amount of sulfur measured in parts per million) are minor in volume. More natural-leaning wineries like us don't add yeast or nutrients at all. And yet, the organic regulations put a unique hurdle in front of wine: "Any use of added sulfites means that the wine is only eligible for the 'made with' labeling category and may not use the USDA organic seal." Because we add sulfites in the winemaking process, the highest tier that we can qualify for is the "Made with Organic" tier.

Pause for record scratch here. What?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that there are people with serious sulfite allergies and sensitivities. I have found various government estimates that between 0.2% and 1% of Americans have sulfite sensitivities to one degree or another. That's not an insignificant number, although most sensitivities are mild. The most serious sulfite allergies can cause asthma or even in rare cases anaphylaxis, although these reactions are extremely rare. It is in theory for those people that wines have to carry a "contains sulfites" declaration on their label. Whether this declaration (which has led a lot of people to attribute to sulfites unrelated symptoms such as the "red wine headache") is wise is the topic for another blog. In any case the presence of sulfites already has to be declared. But sulfites, in and of themselves, are not inorganic... except according to the NOP standards, when they're used in wine. 

Why turns out to be a legacy of prohibition. In an article for the Tribune Newspapers, Bill St. John recounts the influence of then-Senator Strom Thurmond, segregationist, teetotaler and avowed opponent of alcohol, whose "crowning achievement" was a warning label on alcohol whose purpose was "not to inform but to frighten". That is how the "contains sulfites" labeling requirement ended up in the regulations of the BATF (now TTB) rather than the FDA. There are many common food products that contain higher concentrations of sulfites than wine (including dried fruit, frozen potatoes, frozen shrimp and many condiments) but none of them are required to declare a warning like this. Only alcohol.

Why the Standards Haven't Evolved
According to Geoffrey Jones and Emily Grandjean's working paper for Harvard Business Review Creating the Market for Organic Wine: Sulfites, Certification, and Green Values, the standard we have today is a result of two things: the stigmatization of sulfites in alcohol, and economic protectionism. When a coalition of wineries and organic farming advocates got together in 2012 to propose adopting the same standards used in Europe and most of the rest of the world (a 100ppm cap on sulfites for organic wines, as opposed to the 350ppm cap for "conventional" wines) a handful of wineries making sulfite-free wines, most notably Frey Vineyards, pushed back. The NOP board sided with that group.

In the conclusion to his article Reds, Whites, and Sulfites: Examining Different Organic Wine Regulation Practices in the United States and the European Union in the Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, author Ryan Puszka points out that the health difference between the American and world standards is negligible:

"For all ecologically and nearly all health concerned purposes, the penalized winemakers produce an identical product to certified wine producers from completely organic grapes. The logical foundation of the current NOP scheme and resulting disenfranchisement, then, is substantiated by flimsy health claims about extremely marginal cases that thinly veil an economic desire to narrow competition in the market."

So, there's a coalition of anti-alcohol interests, natural wine purists, and sulfite-free wineries who have banded together to make the "Organic Wine" status hard to achieve in the United States. Why should we care? Because having the standards written as they are means that organic wine is unlikely to ever be more than a niche product. And having organic wine no more than a niche product means that grapes -- which are one of the easiest crops to farm organically -- are going to be farmed organically a lot less widely than they should be. And that should concern us all.

To understand why, it's helpful to know what sulfites are doing in winemaking. After all, sulfur is a mineral, and a perfectly legal thing to put on an organic vineyard, used for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. On vines, it's a common tool to keep mildew from spreading. In winemaking, it discourages the action of yeasts and other bacteria. Put in too much and your wine won't ferment. But in small amounts, it allows fermentation yeasts to proceed while inhibiting the action of vinegar-causing bacteria and other spoilage processes. It also absorbs oxygen, protecting a wine from oxidation as it ages in barrel or bottle.

Implications on the Reputation of Organic Wine
As you might expect from my list of sulfur's properties, many of the early organic-labeled sulfite-free wines were unstable and short-lived. The ones that were shelf-stable tended to have been highly fined and filtered and otherwise processed in a way that tended to make them unexciting. And those early impressions of organic wines have lingered in the marketplace. To this day, wineries like us dread being put on the "organic wine" shelf, because fine wine drinkers tend to avoid it, assuming it's aimed at people for whom the organic seal is more important than the wine quality.

The "made with organic grapes" option might seem like an equally good substitute, but it hasn't gotten much traction either. I'd speculate that this is for three reasons. First, there's that lingering doubt because of the many flawed or mediocre organic wines about whether organic grapes is actually a good thing. Second, the NOP clearly intends that the classification be a lesser one that implies that there are things in there that are not organic, and maybe not even grapes. Think "Pasta Sauce, made with Organic Tomatoes". The implication is clear that there are things in there that aren't organic, and aren't tomatoes. Third, you can't use the organic seal. As it was intended to be, the seal is the shorthand for certified organic. You can put extra words on your label, but there are always lots of words. The seal stands out.

Why We Should Care: Less Organically Farmed Land
If there's not a great reason to put yourself into the organic classification you're eligible for, wineries would be excused for not bothering to go through the work and expense of certifying themselves organic. And that's what's happened: according to Jones and Grandjean, in 2017 organic acreage represented only 2% of vineyard land in California, and had actually declined 10% since 2013.

To be sure, some of the prime grape acres have let their organic certification lapse but have adopted Biodynamic certification, which requires the same elimination of chemicals in the vineyard but allows a limited (under 100ppm) addition of sulfites in the winery. Biodynamics, which also incorporates elements of biodiversity and soil microbial health, has garnered a reputation as a farming method adopted by some of the world's greatest vineyards. Of course it also comes with elements that speak of cosmic energies and cycles of the moon, which tends to limit its audience a bit.

Many other vineyards are being farmed organically but not certified. I talk to vintners all the time who have chosen that path. And of course sustainability certification have proliferated. But I don't think that either of these are ideal outcomes. Someone who does not have to be audited for a certification is more likely to hedge, and it's difficult to know how many of these vineyards would actually be able to pass an organic certification. Verification matters. And as for sustainability certifications, they do a good job on breadth, asking wineries to look at things that neither organics nor Biodynamics addresses, like renewable energy, water use reduction, or wildlife passthroughs. But, by and large, sustainability certifications fall short on rigor. Most allow the use of Roundup and many chemical pesticides. You can make a legitimate critique that many are little more than greenwashing.  

In any case, it is a failure of the national organic standards that they have left air in the room for these other approaches to proliferate. Ryan Puszka's conclusion on this is scathing:

"Furthermore, the no-added sulfite NOP standards disincentivizes U.S. and European winemakers from attaining organic certification, as they may not deem the “made with organic grape” certification worthwhile in light of the high costs associated with certification. Moreover, this confusing system renders wine labels even more indecipherable than they already are, requiring customers to know the different international standards of “organic” and “made with organic . . . “. The net result is consumer confusion and economic inefficiency. All of these issues undermine the legitimacy of national organics programs."

What Comes Next
For us, the failures of the existing certifications are another reason we're excited to embrace Regenerative Organic Certification. There is a carve-out in the TTB's application of the NOP standards that a wine that farms their grapes organically, produces the wine in an organic-certified facility, and uses less than the international standard (100ppm) of sulfites can't use the NOP seal but can use the seal of their certifier. The good folks at CCOF have a useful document explaining the rules, which contains the below image:

CCOF Made with Organic Grapes

The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) logo will be treated similarly. Thankfully, ROC is following the international organic (and Biodynamic) standard and allowing ROC labeling on wines that are made from Regenerative Organic Certified grapes, produced in an organic certified facility, and use no more than 100ppm of sulfites.

So, while you won't see a USDA Organic seal on a bottle of Tablas Creek any time soon, we're hopeful that starting in 2021 you'll see the ROC logo on our bottles. And together we can help put one last legacy of Strom Thurmond to bed. 


Down to the Roots: The Appeal of Biochar

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who are tapped into the world of regenerative farming, or if you are a scholar in the study of ancient Amazonian agricultural farming tactics, biochar is probably a familiar term. If not, let me explain. Biochar is an ancient tool used to increase the fertility of the soil that has started to make a comeback in today’s regenerative farming world. At its essence, biochar is essentially a form of charcoal that is incorporated into compost or directly into the soil profile as a means of storing carbon and nutrients and increasing your soil’s moisture holding capacity.

One of the reasons biochar is making such a huge comeback in today’s regenerative farming world is that it is fairly easy to make. You start with a biomass, in our case, grapevine prunings and fallen logs and brush that we’ve collected while cleaning our forest understory to keep our fire risks down. Add some kind of receptacle, or even just a cone-shaped hole in the ground. You then light the fuel on fire burning the material from the top on down. The gases that are contained in that biomass beneath the fire combust and burn off, but leave almost all the carbon behind. If done properly, there is very little Carbon Dioxide released into the atmosphere (imagine a smokeless fire if you will). Once the fire has burned through your pile of biomass, you are left with a form of nearly pure carbon or biochar. This would be the simplest way of creating biochar for small producers. There are many other forms of production as well. There are larger kiln style burners all the way to industrial style setups that companies like Pacific Biochar are using. But in all cases, the idea is that you are turning raw fuel into a stable form of carbon as efficiently as possible.

Biochar - piles

Beyond its carbon capturing ability, biochar improves your soil in several ways. Because of its crystalline structure, one gram of biochar can contain – conservatively – over 2000 square feet of surface area. That surface area has the ability to hold on to both nutrients and water molecules and release them slowly, over time as needed. These properties are very similar to those of limestone. Both limestone and biochar are essentially banks and whenever our grapevines need a little cash, they are able to access the needed resources easily. A recent 3-year study conducted by Monterey Pacific Inc. showed that using biochar in conjunction with compost increased both grapevine yield and soil water holding capacity.

Last year, we ran a biochar trial very similar to Monterey Pacific’s here at Tablas Creek. We incorporated ten tons of biochar into some of the compost we made here on the property. We then took that biochar/compost mix and spread it out on the ground of our pig pen. Next, we moved our sheep into that pen and fed them feed harvested from the property on top of the mix for 3 days:

Biochar - Grazing sheep

We gathered that compost/biochar/manure mix and spread in our trial block. In the trial block we left 2 rows untreated, treated 2 rows with just compost, 2 rows with compost/biochar mix, and 2 rows with the compost/biochar/manure mix, repeated 3 times (18 rows total). We then seeded all rows with cover crop. It did not take a trained eye to see the difference between the rows that were treated and those that were not. The cover crops were happy in all the rows, but those that had the bio-char and compost mix (like the row on the left in the photo below) had a cover crop that was considerably taller than the rest of the block.

Biochar - Growth from application
Beyond the fact that biochar has the ability to increase yields of grapevines and soil moisture holding capacity, onsite production of biochar provides an alternative to the burn piles that pollute the air in many farm areas while also releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Every farming property has to deal with biomass collected from the previous growing season. But choosing to produce biochar with that biomass is a win-win, creating a product that helps our vineyard while significantly reducing air pollution and CO2 release.

Up to this point, we’ve been purchasing biochar for our experiments. In the next couple of months, we’ll be designing a small kiln to trial here on the property. We want to get a feel for the cost, safety, and efficiency of the process. But we feel great about the prospects for this experiment. Whatever canes are left after chipping what we need for our compost program, we will turn into biochar. Whatever wood we collect while clearing the understory of the property to reduce fire hazard and improve access for our flock, we will turn into biochar. The biochar we create will be incorporated into our compost, aerating the pile and helping the composting process, which proceeds better in the presence of oxygen.

So, what do we think the impacts of biochar will be? Better soil fertility and water-holding capacity. A healthier compost pile. Reduced fire hazard and more grazeable land for our herd. Good conditions for the re-growth of native vegetation. More carbon in the soil and less (perhaps dramatically less) CO2 produced. Win-win-win-win-win.

Farm Like the World Depends On It

Biochar - overview


2020: The Year Climate Change Got Real for American Wine

As I write this, I'm staring out at a dim, yellow landscape, the indistinct sunlight filtered through a thick layer of atmospheric smoke. I have a sweatshirt on because the day has never really warmed up here in town. We had a couple of days this past week, prime ripening season in Paso Robles, where it barely made it out of the sixties. A photo, no filter applied:

Harvest Apocalypse

We're not really complaining; as apocalyptic as it looks, the air has been cool and fresh at the surface, and we got a chance to catch up on harvesting after what was a scorching hot previous weekend. And plenty is ready. Pretty much all our Syrah. The Vermentino and Marsanne. Our first lots of Grenache Blanc. The smoke has reduced actual temperatures from model forecasts by some 20 degrees, and if we'd had the mid-90s weather that was forecast for this week, it's possible that new blocks would have ripened before we could get through the backlog that the last heat wave produced.

This smoke layer, driven by the fact that six of California ten largest fires ever are currently burning, is only the most recent of a series of unprecedented things we've seen in the 2020 growing season. A week ago, we had a heat wave that crested with back-to-back-to-back days that topped out at 109, 113, and 111. The Paso Robles Airport broke its all-time high with a 117 reading. And San Luis Obispo hit 120°F, which appears to be the highest temperature ever recorded in a coastal zone anywhere in North or South America.

Last month, we saw a trio of fires in the Central Coast produce so much smoke at the surface that we closed our tasting patio for four days because the air quality was so bad. On August 20th, San Luis Obispo had the worst air quality in the world. Those fires were sparked by a surge of tropical moisture, the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto, that moved up the California coast and produced thousands of lighting strikes on August 14th and 15th. The fires lit by those lightning strikes were fueled by another heat wave that pushed temperatures over 105°F each day between August 15th and 18th.

Paso Robles is hot in the summer. Summer days over 100°F have never been rare here. But the increased number and distribution of these days, the fact that records are falling more often, the earlier and earlier beginnings to harvest (and the shorter durations between veraison and harvest), and finally the new, tropical-influenced rainfall patterns, are new. A few data points that I look at:

  • Over our first 15 vintages, 1997-2011, we started our estate harvest in August 40% of the years. Since 2012, we have done so 78% of vintages. Similarly, in those first 15 years, there were six times we harvested into November, and another four that finished October 28th or later. Over the last 8 years, we haven't once harvested in November.
  • It's not just harvest. This year's gap between veraison and harvest was just 35 days, breaking our record of 36, set in both 2016 and 2019. Before that, the record was 39, in 2015. 2013 was the first year that we saw 40 or fewer days between veraison and harvest. So, in less than a decade, we've seen this critical ripening period shrink by 15%. Crucial growing periods are getting hotter. 
  • Our total growing season degree days, a rough measurement of the number of hours in which it's warm enough for grapevines to photosynthesize efficiently, shows that since 2000, our five warmest years have all come since 2012.

All those data points are indicative, but none of them are likely to on their own pose much of a threat to winemaking here in Paso Robles. But they feed into two phenomena that do: droughts and fires. I'll address droughts first. I wrote a 3-part blog series back in 2014 about our move toward dry farming as a part of being ready for what seems likely to be a drier future. In the research for that, I looked at EPA projections for rainfall showed that, depending on our success in reducing emissions, coastal California would see between 20% and 35% less precipitation annually by the end of the 21st Century:

Southwest-precip-change

That research has since been reinforced by studies of warming in the Pacific Ocean, which will have a complex series of consequences, including increased rainfall in places like northern Australia, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia, but less rainfall (and a later onset of the rainy season) in coastal California. This suggests that droughts, particularly the multi-year droughts like the one we saw between 2012 and 2016, will become more common.

Next, fires. It's not like California is a stranger to fires, but severe ones are definitely happening more often. I moved out here in 2002. The first time after that there was any smoke here was July 2008, when I wrote in a blog that two big fires to our north had burned some 73,000 acres in three weeks. (Note that that figure seems almost quaint now, with the horrific Creek Fire east of Fresno burning 160,000 acres in the first four days.) The second fire I noted in the blog was in 2016. Except for 2019, we've seen scary fires in California's wine country each year since then, and 2020 has already seen the most acres burned on record:

The fires are driven by a number of factors, including higher temperatures, lower humidities, poor utility maintenance, human encroachment into wildland areas, and accumulated fuel in the forests after a century of fire suppression. All of these encourage fires to be bigger, faster-growing, and more destructive than before. But what has set the worst ones off in recent years has been climate-related: either through dry winds spurring (and spreading) fires through downed power lines in periods before it has rained in California, or by tropical moisture that has sparked summer lightning.

The fires that impacted Northern California in 2017 and 2018 were produced by late-season (October and November) windstorms that spurred fires from an aging electrical grid. This is largely a governmental and regulatory failure. But while these windstorms aren't new, and don't particularly appear to be a function of climate change, thanks to climate change the time of year when these storms are common is more likely to still be summer-dry. That is why the climate change-driven later onset to the rainy season is a significant contributor to the number and severity of fires.

2020's fires in California have been different. The storms this summer that produced the first series of wildfires were driven by tropical moisture that was pulled into California. A warming climate produces more and larger tropical storms and hurricanes. 2020 has already seen so many tropical storms that I've begun to read articles about how NOAA might run out of names. The direct impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes on California are rare, and minor compared to their impacts in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. But the more of these storms that form, the greater the chance that tropical moisture can end up in unexpected places. These occasionally produce enough moisture to provide some short-term fire risk reduction (such as the July 2015 storm that dropped more than two inches of rain on us) but more often produce extensive lightning with only limited moisture. These sorts of storms introduce extreme fire risk. 

The combination of warmer days, dryer (and later-beginning) winters, and more frequent incursions of summer tropical moisture has combined to produce drastically more days with very high fire risk.

So, what to do? That's the hard part. Most of the response has to come at the governmental level. Investments need to be made to modernize utilities. Forest management practices could be improved to reduce the amount of fuel that builds up. Cities, counties, and states should adopt growth plans that reduce the human/wildland interface as much as possible, both to reduce the opportunities for fires to start and to minimize the loss of life and property when they do. But ultimately, if climate change itself goes unaddressed, all these initiatives (none of which are easy or likely to come without resistance) are likely to be overwhelmed by the growth in the number of extreme fire days and fast spread of fires that do start.

Here's where regenerative agriculture comes in. One of its tenets is that agriculture has an important and necessary role in the reduction of greenhouse gases (and especially Carbon Dioxide) in the atmosphere. And plants, after all, are the best engines we have in doing so, since photosynthesis uses CO2 as one of its inputs, turning that carbon into carbohydrates. But modern farming produces more emissions than the plants it grows consume. Some of that is the fertilizer, derived mostly from petrochemicals. Some of that is the fuel for the tractors and other machinery. And some of it is the processing of the agricultural products.

Regenerative agriculture leads the way toward building carbon content in the soil, through a combination of permaculture, cover crops, reduction in tillage, and the replacement of chemical inputs with natural ones like compost or manure. Soils with more carbon content also hold more moisture, which will help California wineries weather the droughts too. We showed in the application process for our new Regenerative Organic Certification that it was possible to increase our soil's carbon content while growing grapes even in a dry climate like Paso Robles.

Regenerative farming is not just for wineries. It's what all farms, from row crops to orchards to fibers to livestock, should be moving toward. But vineyards offer some of the lowest-hanging opportunities for better farming, because wine is a value-added product with the resources to invest, and the investments tend also to make higher-quality grapes and longer-lived vines, providing return on the investments.

I can't imagine how California, Oregon, or Washington wineries can live through the 2020 vintage without worrying about how climate change might impact their future. A small silver lining could be encouraging more of that community to move toward regenerative farming. Consumers have a role to play here too. Before this year, there wasn't an available standard for moving to, measuring, and being audited for being regenerative. Now, with the launch of Regenerative Organic Certification, there is. If your favorite wineries are not farming regeneratively, you should be asking them why not. It's one of the tools we as farmers have to take some control over what is likely to be an increasingly volatile and dangerous future that might look like last week a lot more often than any of us would want. 

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