The Winemakers Working for Environmental Change
The wine world is reliant on the generosity of nature for its very existence, so, in return, a fair share of winemakers and business owners work to protect the environment. Farms and wineries around the globe strive for various levels of eco-minded achievements and certifications. They’re cognizant of their social responsibilities to keep the earth as healthy and fruitful a place as possible for continued success and long-term health.
While the effort made by individual wineries to keep an eye on their environmental footprint is undoubtedly commendable, the strongest models are those that seek something more. These “green gurus” take their organic, biodynamic or sustainable practices beyond their own cellar doors, and have the ability to influence entire communities of growers, or even whole winemaking regions.
Here, we highlight four agents of change whose efforts work for the greater good of the globe. —Lauren Buzzeo
Steve McIntyre comes from a citrus and avocado family in Southern California’s Ventura County, but he staked his own claim in the vineyards of Monterey to the north, where he’s farmed since 1983.
About a decade later, McIntyre started his own company, Monterey Pacific, an agricultural consulting business. He also helped establish the Vineyard Team, a group of Central Coast growers focused on issues like sustainability. In 1996, the group took a cue from a self-assessment program created by Swiss farmers and developed a metric-based evaluation called the Positive Points System (PPS) to analyze the sustainability of vineyard practices.
“It started to become apparent that this could have a life of its own, and that sustainability was starting to be bantered about,” says McIntyre, who points out that big-box stores like Walmart and Costco began to show interest in eco-friendly products. “The train had left the station, and if you weren’t on it, you basically got left behind.”
After more than 1,000 evaluations covering 60,000 vineyard acres, the self-assessment evolved into a third-party review process. Over time, measurable guidelines for fair labor and financial stability were added, and in 2008, what would become the first Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certifications were issued to vineyards.
Certification extended to wineries in 2016, as Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles and Chamisal Vineyards in Edna Valley became the first fully certified operations. Today, nearly 200 properties and 41,100 acres from across California are certified, and last year, the program expanded to Michigan. More than 2.6 million cases of wine have bared the SIP Certified logo.
“Sustainability is not something you’re ever going to actually achieve—it’s a continuum,” says McIntyre, who now manages 12,000 acres, runs his namesake wine brand and knows this is not a fad. “People realize that it has inherent value, and even if it does cost a little bit more, consumers want these wines. They want to know where their food comes from and how it is made.” —Matt Kettmann
Dr. Irina Santiago-Brown Co-owner, Inkwell Wines & Consulting
In 2011, Irina Santiago-Brown was a PhD candidate who began working with The McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association as part of her studies. She was brought on to help develop a system of sustainability for the region, a project that would consume nearly four years of her life.
But the Brazilian expat could hardly have guessed back then that she’d go on to design and implement Australia’s first sustainability program. Called Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW), a 2017 report from the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association revealed that the program now certifies 65% of McLaren Vale’s wine grapes and is used in five other regions across the country.
Building upon other New World sustainability programs, SAW focuses not only on the environment, but also on the social and economic realities of grape growing. When developing the program, Santiago-Brown created an annual report that highlights aspects like growers’ performances and chemical usage, and it compares results within the entire region.
Unlike other sustainability certifications that kick out poor performers, inclusivity is key to SAW, which works to instead help turn these growers around.
“I believe these are the ones who need the most help to improve,” says Santiago-Brown. She says that SAW’s targets shift as the environment changes, “[to] keep the system dynamic and meaningful over time.”
Today, Santiago-Brown also owns Inkwell Wines with her husband, Dudley, where they recently opened a sustainable tasting room. She was awarded the inaugural Australian Women in Wine Award for Viticulturist of the Year in November 2015 for her work at the estate, has become a consultant to growers across Australia and the world, and has aided in the conversion of countless wineries to adopt sustainable practices, and for many, a focus toward organics and biodynamics.
“Before Irina’s arrival, we were all just shooting in the dark,” says Brad Hickey of Brash Higgins. He now farms his vineyards organically, thanks in large part to SAW. “Now we have a roadmap everyone can follow to make Australia a greener, healthier place to grow grapes.” —Christina Pickard
There are organic, sustainable and environmentally minded winemakers, and then there’s Robert Eden. A Languedoc-estate owner turned green-wine visionary, no one in France can compete with him when it comes to pushing eco-conscious boundaries and changing the country’s winemaking landscape.
When Eden purchased the 79-acre, Minervois-based Château Maris estate with business partner Kevin Parker in 1997, he knew that he wanted to work the land as naturally as possible, without the use of chemicals or pesticides. After some experimentation with biodynamic preparations, he saw its effect on soil composition and decided to convert the entire property.
It soon became the first estate in the Minervois La Livinière Appellation d’Origine Protégee (AOP) to be fully certified biodynamic, and it’s held those credentials issued by Ecocert (2002), Biodyvin (2004) and Demeter (2008). Last year, Château Maris also became the first certified B Corp winery in Europe, one of the most rigorous sustainability certifications in the world.
“We must stop polluting our earth, and we must be careful not to pollute our communities,” says Eden. “For these reasons, and because we are farming in such a fast-changing climate, we need to convert as much of our land to agriculture that retains carbon in the soil and stops the nitrates poisoning our ground water.”
These are ideals that Eden extends beyond the vineyards. He achieved another first when he built a sustainable, recyclable, vegetable-based cellar out of hemp. Composed of organic hemp-straw bricks that are supported by a wooden structure, “the chai,” as it’s called, is environmentally efficient and carbon neutral because of the bricks’ ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Beyond Château Maris, Eden has partnered with Vinadeis, the largest wine cooperative group in France, on a fully organic subsidiary called Les Artisans Bio. Devoted to the development and promotion of organic and biodynamic wines across the main wine regions of the South of France, the company’s goal is to maintain traceability and accountability from vine to consumer.
“Vinadeis will sell more than 600,000 bottles of organic wine in 2018, and 50% will be from its member vineyards, with 495 acres of member biodynamic vineyards and another 123 under biodynamic conversion,” says Eden.
Eden won’t stop there, either, as he has even more organic wine projects on the horizon. Through his work with his own winery and other winemaking groups and organizations, he hopes to continue to spread the word about sustainable, viable organic winemaking practices.
“We continue to pursue our strategy of doing business for good and taking into consideration our local social impact,” says Eden. “The whole community needs to be aware of how good it is for them and their future as this will encourage more to take the challenge. Together is better.” —L.B.
Karissa Kruse, President, Sonoma County Winegrowers
As president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, Karissa Kruse represents more than 1,800 grape growers across the diverse vastness that is Sonoma County. In addition to monthly “truck talks,” where she speaks about everything from pruning practices to water conservation, it’s Kruse who insists that area growers embrace sustainability. In 2014, the organization made a commitment to be certified 100% sustainable within the next five years.
“As we kick off 2018, more than 90% of our vineyards are part of the Sonoma County Sustainable initiative, far exceeding my expectations in terms of timing and strength of commitment for a voluntary program,” says Kruse. “Grape growers throughout Sonoma County have embraced sustainable farming and are collaborating on best management practices and ways to continuously improve on their farming, employment and business practices.”
To achieve its five-year goal, the group is using the Sustainable Winegrowing Program designed by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, considered one of the most comprehensive and widely adopted programs of its kind in the world.
Kruse is training member growers on 100 best management practices, as well as collecting data on more than 15,000 vineyard acres per year for four years.
“The commitment to sustainable farming means so much to me personally, because I believe it is the best way to preserve agriculture for the long term and support our local family businesses,” she says. “I am most proud of our commitment to the social sustainability pillar of the program.
“People really are the most important part of any business or community, and the Sonoma County Winegrowers sustainability effort focuses on both supporting our agricultural employees and their families and engagement in the community.”
Kruse, who lost her home in the wine-country wildfires in October, is now even more keenly aware of the importance of sustainability.
“There has never a been a more important time to take care of each other than during these rebuilding efforts of our beautiful county,” she says. “Sustainability provides a compass and a set of resources to help local farmers be land preservationists, economic contributors and philanthropists to ensure an even stronger Sonoma County in the future.” —Virginie Boone
- 1Steve McIntyre
- 2Dr. Irina Santiago-Brown
- 3Robert Eden
- 4Karissa Kruse