These days, you need some mad ninja skills to ward off greenwashing: it's on your "recyclable" packaging (nice try, plastic #7!) and your "biodegradable" coffee pods (gotcha, bioplastic!) But perhaps the area where this is most pervasive? Wine.
And that’s in large part because, despite loving good wine (and oh, do we love it…), most of us don’t have a clue what really goes into making it.
Nuh-uh, OA, I hear you say. I’m a wine connoisseur.
OK… well, how about this: imagine a wine with a label boasting that it contains “fewer than 200 parts per million of sulfur!”
That seems like a good thing… until you realize that in most natural wine circles, the accepted max for this additive is something between 70 and 30 parts per million.
Or let's consider the winery claiming all of its products are vegan. Sounds good… until you realize that bentonite, a clay-based fining agent, is not only vegan, but it’s also common in mass-produced, industrial wines, and the vegan-ness of the wine isn’t necessarily a marker of quality or luxury or… really anything except the absence of animal products like egg whites, which are used by many producers of delicious organic wine that isn't vegan at all.
But there's more salt in this wound: the veritable Venn diagram of overlapping yet distinct programs and missions and certifications from organic to sustainable to biodynamic to natural (which has become associated with a sort of murky, cloudy, unstable, “natty” wine that is far removed from high-end Rinaldi – also technically natural), and it’s enough to make your head spin (and you haven’t even popped the cork yet!).
But here’s what we know for sure:
- Perfect is the enemy of good. (We’re not sure Voltaire was talking about wine when he coined this phrase, but he was French, so let’s say he was.)
- “Good” is motivating luxury wine producers in Napa Valley – with excellent results.
A Napa Valley Winemaker Making a Difference in How "Green" Is Defined
Napa Valley is home to some of the world’s best wine, but it’s not always the easiest place to make it. Hotter, longer summers are pushing harvest dates back further and further, and an ever-changing panoply of issues ranging from phylloxera to drought to smoke taint plague winemakers every year.
And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – these woes, some winemakers have set themselves an additional challenge: ensuring that their wine is also sustainable.
Larkmead Vineyards is an outspoken leader in climate research in Napa Valley, with rooftop solar panels producing more energy than the vineyard requires and a commitment to improving the local environs, leading, for example, the restoration of Selby Creek, a key seasonal waterway bordering the property.
Winemaker Dan Petroski has long been a stalwart of associations like Napa Green Winery, and as such, he is all too familiar with the dangers of greenwashing.
For years, he says, the certification meant… well… about as much as "natural" means on boxes of "granola bars" (*coughcandybarscough*).
“It wasn’t a very restrictive program," says Petroski. "It was more about: do the little things. And make sure you get the little things right. It’s kind of like passing your college exam with a D. You still got the fucking certificate, right? You got the diploma.”
But Petroski wanted to do more.
Under his watch, Larskmead has planted 230 olive trees and added 60 bird boxes and six bee colonies to its property. It has begun the transition to organic, awaiting full certification next year. Petroski has begun discussions about planting cork trees on the vineyard, given their carbon-capture potential; he’s looking at ways to lighten the glass bottles that are shipped around the world; he’s considering ways to offset the impact of the two-hour journey of visitors from San Francisco to the vineyard.
Given the ever-increasing local temperatures, Petroski must keep one eye on the future at all times. He's deep in thought, for example, about ways to mechanize luxury farming in the next few decades, when manual labor becomes untenable in Napa Valley.
“You’re not gonna be able to be outside doing manual labor for 6 to 8 hours at a time, because it’s gonna be too hot,” he says. “The luxury wine experience that we provide and kind of the hand-crafted nature of what we provide, and that’s not gonna be possible in 40 years.”
In 2021, the Napa Green program will be doing more too, with further restrictions on pesticides and water efficiency and requirements for regenerative agriculture.
“You’re gonna see a fallout,” he says, “of Napa wineries that used to be in Green.”
An Historic Winery Taking Futuristic Strides
Far Niente is an iconic winery with a 136-year-long history. Founded in 1885, it is consistently recognized as a benchmark producer of both Napa Valley Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cabernet. Given its cultural cachet, there was no real need for it to take strides towards improved sustainability from a marketing perspective… and yet that’s exactly what winemaker Greg Allen decided to do.
“We have a multi-generational view,” he says. “We wish to be able to hand this property off to the next generation of winemakers, to come in and make fabulous wine.”
That generation is part of what motivated the winery to take a majorly innovative step in 2008 – literally: Allen notes that some blunt words from one of the owners’ sons about walking the walk led this iconic winery to spearhead the world's very first Floatovoltaic system, a ground-breaking floating, grid-connected solar installation that helped Far Niente and sister winery Nickel & Nickel become net-zero consumers of electricity.
But it was not an easy project to get off the ground. After doing research, it was ascertained that a whopping 2300 solar panels were needed to fuel Far Niente – and they sure as heck weren’t going on the circa-1885 winery building.
“It’s on the National Register of Historic Places,” says Allen. “You can’t put solar panels on the roof!”
They were able to find an installer with enough of an appreciation for a well-designed risk to attempt to float the panels in their pond, creating the world’s first grid-connected floating solar array.
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“I mean, there’s some headaches with running the power plant, but for the most part, we’ve achieved our goals of offsetting our power usage. It's phenomenal," says Allen. "And I think it inspired a lot of floating solar production from governments or private developers or utilities from around the world, and it’s really neat to see that the whole industry of floating solar has taken off.”
And at Far Niente, today, they produce more energy through solar generators than the wineries consume.
A Napa Valley Winery Redefining Biodynamic for a Luxury Consumer
280-acre Quintessa has been farmed organically since its inception in 1989, but with the arrival of estate director Rodrigo Soto, it made the transition to biodynamic winemaking in 1996.
While Soto dubs his first brushes with biodynamic as “anecdotal,” he got the opportunity to see the benefits of these techniques in a previous job with tiered products.
“I got the chance to try grapes that were conventional, organic, and biodynamic," he recalls. "And it was very consistent that biodynamic grapes were making the best wine.”
The biodynamic label often leads to confusion and evokes images of almost mystical processes: Bury a bone in the eastern quadrant of the vineyard beneath the full moon kinda stuff.
The allusion makes Soto laugh.
“Unfortunately, communication has not been the best,” he acquiesces, noting that, “when you create that halo of being esoteric or maybe a little bit mystic or however you want to call it, you distract, and you detract from reality.”
For Soto, biodynamic means, first and foremost, knowing your land.
“For me, working with biodynamics means a deep understanding of your territory, of your property,” he says. And in Napa, unlike in continental Europe, for instance, where issues may include mold or mildew or pests, the main thing the property demands is attention to fertility.
“That’s an aspect that, it may sound less esoteric; it’s much more pedestrian and much more simple, but it’s a simple thing and in a lot of details where you make the difference in farming,” he says. “If you don’t know how to prune, or you’re over-tilling your vineyard, you are very detached from the moon cycles and the calendar.”
Today, Quintessa is notably working on pruning techniques with Italian consultants Simonit & Sirch, reducing its tilling, and creating architectural structures that promote canopies and thus health, fertility, and longevity.
His overall goal is to help the vineyard age; to cultivate a “sense of place.” It’s for this reason that each year the vineyard releases just one wine that “represents the expression of the property every single vintage through time” – a goal that often means letting the grapes tell the winemakers what they want, rather than the opposite. (Yeah, OK, that sounds a little mystical, but we dig it.)
“Us in the New World, we like flexibility and we like having choices,” says Soto, noting that the estate model preferred by Quintessa is "a very Old World model that doesn’t give you that flexibility and forces your commitment to your property.”
And this is true even in difficult years.
“It really bothers me when I see certain people that say, 'No, you know what, the potential quality can be compromised, so we’re not taking the grapes this year,'” he says.
Fending Off Climate Change: Now and For the Future
Of course, no two vineyards are alike, and neither are two winemakers. While Soto sees it as his responsibility to take whatever grapes nature throws at him, Allen, for example, notes that after over two decades, there will be no Dolce – Far Niente's sweet wine – in 2020.
“Right now, there isn’t anything that’s apparent that I can do to deal with the effects of the smoke taint,” he says, noting that last year, due to the California wildfires, the vineyards “marinated in smoke and were covered in ash.”
Early tests, he recalls, showed that the wine was compromised.
“And so we made the difficult decision to just leave the fruit out there."
But he hasn’t given up.
“I’m still really intently studying to see if there are things that we can do,” he says – and he, is thus working in direct opposition to the expression at the root of this vineyard’s name: Dolce Far Niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.
“It is anything but Dolce Far Niente, making the wine,” says Allen. “But at the end of it, when you do have the wine, and it tastes so exquisite, and the flavors are so extraordinary, and you know first-hand what you had to do to get there, it is so sublimely rewarding, to see that victory.”
The work these winemakers are doing to make sustainability synonymous with good wine is a reflection of an ever-growing movement in that direction. The global market for organic wine is expected to grow from $11 billion in 2020 to $30 billion in 2030, according to transparency Market Research. In a recent consumer report, research firm Areni Global added a sustainability clause to its definition of a “fine wine” as one that isn’t just “complex,” “balanced” and “provokes emotions and wonders in the one drinking it” but is also “environmentally, socially and financially sustainable.”
And according to these winemakers, it’s an approach that’s coming not a moment too soon.
“We need to be doing everything in our power to kind of change us, convert us out of the mindset of traditional agriculture in America,” says Petroski.
Especially in wine, which, by its very definition, has one foot in the future.
“If you’re not thinking about climate and healthy wine grape growing,” he says, “you’re not gonna be here.”
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