Of all human activity, modern agriculture is the largest single contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) production, to deforestation and to water consumption. Protecting and improving the natural environment are fundamental, and issues like biodiversity, climate change, energy, soil degradation and water scarcity need to be addressed.
The global wine industry can and should do more to create a sustainable future for our planet ? environmentally, socially and economically.
Despite the warnings of a day of reckoning coming for the wine industry expressed in my previous column there is some good news. In response to these challenges organic?and biodynamic wines that focus on environmental protection have developed a notable presence on the global wine scene over the last few years.
More importantly, to my mind, vineyard managers and winery owners in some wine regions are going beyond organic practices and are adopting rigorous sustainability programs. These growers and winemakers alike are connecting to sustainability as an attitude that encompasses all of their work. Distinct from organic and biodynamic farming sustainable farming also?considers the social responsibility of the farm, as well as the profitability of the end product, and in a few cases includes a life cycle analysis of the wine?s impact on eco-systems from ?cradle to grave.?
For some, the goal is to continue to produce great wines while lessening their environmental footprint. For others, the goal is to preserve market share or gain a marketing advantage. And still, for others, the goal is simply to not get left behind. For the industry as a whole the goal should be to stay ahead of consumer and community concerns and avoid widespread pushback.
Adopting and incorporating sustainability into the work of wine growing and wine making is not trivial. These twin goals add substantial burdens to many who already work long hours, and additional costs sometimes where the margins are thin. In the beginning of this pursuit, there must be education, self-assessment and continuous improvement. Then, with official certification come increased paper work, third party independent inspection and on-site audits. But these steps are all critical to ensure credibility and a more sustainable future. Wineries in California, Chile, New Zealand, Oregon and South Africa are the leaders in this quest to be more sustainable and are helped by rigorous program promoted by their regional industry associations.
The term sustainability is often used quite loosely, and it is a term that has been abused by wineries and marketers alike. In the absence of a legal definition for sustainable wine, regional associations are establishing certification systems and prescribed codes of conduct for sustainable practice.
In general, sustainable viticulturists and winemakers work to minimize soil erosion, depletion of soil nutrients, and water pollution. While some of their practices and requirements are like the other responsible farming approaches, it is a much broader concept than either organic or biodynamic. For example, sustainable viticulture emphasizes the use of cover crops and careful canopy management (trellising and pruning) and employs composting. Chemical spraying is permitted, but chemical use is minimized, and spraying events are documented and recorded. Integrated pest management is also an important aspect of sustainable viticulture. Sustainable producers believe their approach is more realistic as the market demands both quality and volume; a vineyard is a business undertaking, which has to be commercially viable.
The wine industry?s complex sustainability issues extend beyond the natural environment in the vineyard. Firms must also address environmental stewardship throughout the production and distribution of the wine, as well as maintain social responsibility in their community to be considered as truly ?sustainable.? Sustainable wineries focus on the following areas of sustainability:
?Waste Management to prevent generation of unnecessary waste to begin with, and to reuse or recycle any waste that is generated.
?Strict Material Handling of potentially hazardous fertilizers and other chemicals used in the vineyard, to limit the impact on the environment, local community and employees.
?Water Management to conserve water use, by sustainably obtaining, using, reusing and discharging water and employing practices that enhance the moisture levels and reduce the need for irrigation, such as mulching, composts, or planting cover crops.
?Energy Efficiency by using energy-efficient appliances and procedures and auditing energy use of wineries to reduce their carbon footprint. These include solar panels and other energy saving devices, housing tanks internally, and farm waste to generate energy.
?Packaging: some wineries measure CO2 emissions generated by glass production as well as the weight of glass in transport of wine to its market and opt for lighter-weight bottles, which also saves cost. Others have opted to bottle some of their wine brands in PET (plastic) bottles to further reduce carbon emissions associated with shipping glass.
Restaurants and bars are starting to serve wines from kegs, a sustainable alternative to offering wines by the glass. Kegs release much less CO2 both in manufacture and in transport than wine in bottles and result in little to no waste generation because most are repurposed or recycled and, at 26 bottles per keg, save substantial amount of trash from the landfill over its lifetime.
Community Outreach: In addition to tangible resource management, sustainable wineries also dedicate time to educating their community of consumers, producers, and vendors about their sustainable practices. These wine producers are also committed to social responsibility and giving back to their communities.
Social Equity: Increasingly, both wine producers, retailers and consumers are looking beyond environmental practices to the broader concept of sustainability — the ?triple bottom line? approach — and working to integrate three main goals: environmental health, economic profitability, and social equity. Social equity means taking care of people ? increasing safety and developmental training for employees, adding incentives such as housing and health insurance for seasonal workers, and focusing on community needs.