A Day of Reckoning for the Wine Industry
My work with sustainable agriculture began in the coffee industry, during a period of tremendous growth in high-quality coffee shops and retail categories around the world. As a senior executive at Starbucks Coffee Company, I led the company’s global responsibility efforts focused on rigorous approaches to sustainable agriculture for coffee, tea and cocoa, fair and responsible relationships with farmers and engaging consumers in this corporate social responsibility effort. Then as a board director of DE Master Blenders 1753 of the Netherlands — formerly Douwe Egbert, the second largest coffee roaster on Europe ‘ I was engaged in the company’s effort to integrate sustainability into its coffee procurement and roasting.
Now in the wine industry I instinctively grasped the similarities between both agricultural commodities. Coffee occupies a place in the market and in our cultural life analogous to wine, and the experience of it can teach us a great deal when it comes to understanding the elements of a sustainable wine industry.’’ Neither is a nutritional necessity, but both are integral to our food habits, consumed for pleasure. And the aroma and flavors of both have the potential to connect those who imbibe with the lives and fates of people throughout the world, to their culture, their nation, their soil. What we enjoy is a direct result of their care of the plant, precision in processing, careful transportation and handling, and diligence in preparation. Consumer awareness of coffee cultivation, and its sometimes negative effect on people and the land, foreshadows current expanding developments in the wine industry.
The industries that produce and bring these two drinkable commodities to market also share important similarities. Vintners confess that wine is made in the vineyard, and the same holds true for coffee. Both are agricultural products from specific regions that are grown according to exacting standards. There are grades and flavor differences based upon where it was raised, how it was processed and flukes of nature that are recognized during evaluation, and priced accordingly. The soil, weather, orientation of the sun, altitude and rainfall ‘ in other words, terroir ‘ affect the flavor of coffee beans and grapes.
But the similarities between coffee and wine don’t end there. From the way we taste them to the words we use to describe them, it turns out that there’s much more to two of the world’s favorite drinks. Granted there are very clear differences: wine and coffee operate along two very different supply chain structures.
For wine, growers of the fruit and producers of the beverage have traditionally supplied their own region of consumers and the supply chain for wine is still largely immediate and fairly tight. If a winery does not literally own its own vineyard, for example, it is often within arm’s reach of one as well as the other links in the value chain.
Coffee on the other hand is produced quite far from its eventual market. The coffee tree is a tropical evergreen shrub that only grows in a defined area above and below the equator, often called the ‘coffee belt’ typically in poor regions of developing countries, also biodiversity ‘hotspots.’ The coffee supply chain is often complex and varies in different countries but typically includes many layers and the grower is often squeezed, receiving a small share of the value of production. The second most traded commodity in the world after oil, market swings in the price of coffee can have a profound effect on incomes of small coffee farmers who are sometimes forced to sell their beans for less than they cost to produce.
Meanwhile, the largest coffee corporations continue to reap enormous profits from the growth in trendy coffee shops and consumer demand for high quality Arabica based beverages. Some farmers cut down trees in rainforests to make room for planting more coffee trees, thereby destroying vital biodiversity and affecting green house gas emissions. This has resulted in a heightened level of activism by environmentalists, social justice campaigners and fair trade advocates, concerned with the negative impact of coffee growing on tropical rainforests and human inequity in the coffee supply chain.
The sustainability performance of the wine industry has yet to receive the kind of media scrutiny and activist interest that other industries like coffee have in recent years. But such issues have started to gain prominence, as consumers want to learn the cultural and environmental stories behind the wines they drink. And a day of reckoning for the wine industry is fast approaching judging by the increasing number of complaints over land use, objection to permits for new vineyards, water rights disputes, protests over pesticide spray drift and legal actions that producers face as a result of the health impacts of chemical use in vineyards. The industry should heed the lessons from the coffee experience.
In Sonoma County, California for example more wineries face growing objections to the industry’s expansion. Between 2000 and 2016, 300 new wineries and tasting rooms were approved ‘ a nearly 360 percent increase over the previous three decades ‘ and many of those wineries have decided to boost business by offering an array of events, from wine-tasting dinners to weddings and harvest parties.
The industry’s growth has sparked strong blowback from many rural residents, who say unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods. Critics say the industry’s expansion has gone overboard, impacting daily life for winery neighbors while clogging area roads, attracting thousands of visitors to the most popular annual events. They object to the commercialization of agricultural lands and diminishing the rural character of the county.
In France pesticides awareness groups have sprang up in most viticulture regions and anti-pesticide protests have been rife in 2016 with the Gironde administrative region, with Bordeaux at its epicenter, as the country’s largest user of pesticides. Pressure groups in Burgundy and in the M’connais area have demanded that grape growers cut pesticide use. Alongside the protests, a former Bergerac vineyard worker successfully sued her ex-employer over pesticide-related illness — believed to be a first in France.
The industry is being shaped by rigorous, compulsory environmental regulations, voluntary assessment and certification, local activists, as well as by more environmentally conscious consumers who want to be sure they are purchasing products that respect the environment.
The wine production process affects the natural environment that surrounds the vineyards and can negatively impact the quality of water, soil and air. Pesticides and other chemical fertilizers used in grape growing can remain in the soil, the clay, and the organic matter within the soil for years, causing a loss of fertility, exhausting nutrients and allowing erosion. Furthermore, if the soil is polluted, rainfall will cause the subterranean waters to be contaminated as well.
Sustainability issues extend beyond the natural environment in the vineyard. Producers and winemakers must also address environmental stewardship throughout the production and distribution of the wine (with regard to packaging and fossil fuel use, as well as maintain social responsibility in their community to be considered truly ‘sustainable.’
But it isn’t all bad news. My next column will describe how some regions and wineries are implementing responsible practices.