California Greenin'

Carol M. Newman / June 2009

With some restaurateurs finding "the language of green" helps wine sales to climb, America's largest wine producing state strives to stay ahead of the curve on earth-friendly practices. Carol M. Newman sorts out the complex nuances of sustainability.

Californians dream big. Particularly winemakers, who, unfazed by the challenges, have taken the practices and principles of sustainable agriculture into the vineyards.

Sustainability falls into three subsets: sustainable, organic, and biodynamic. Sustainable wines protect and enhance the environment through healthy, economically viable vineyard practices that ensure the quality-of-life quotient for future generations. Wines made with organically grown grapes may not use hard chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides and must subscribe to stringent certification laws set by California Certified Organic Farmers. An organic wine, of which there are actually very few, is defined as a wine made from organically grown grapes without any added sulfites. It's agricultural practices rather than winemaking practices that account for the majority of organic efforts.

Biodynamic viticulture, which can now be certified, began in the 1920s, based on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher and spiritualist Rudolph Steiner. It's a more extreme form of organic viticulture drawing on spiritual and astrological enlightenment and calls for a return to traditional farming. Some roll their eyes and sarcastically say the spacey practices follow only an alignment of the stars.

For a few historic wine producing giants, "earth-friendly" farming practices are nothing new. For generations, sustainable farming methods kept vineyards productive--and they've endured. For example, the Gallo family, one of the largest organic growers, have made sustainability a way of life since the 1970s.

"We embraced sustainable practices before they were popular," says Gina Gallo, explaining that 100 percent of the winery's estate-grown grapes fall into the sustainable category. "The crux of our family was our great-uncle, a farmer at heart." She keeps the words of Ernest in her back pocket: "The richest goods we will ever have are beneath our feet."

The Gallos follow a give-back program: for every one acre planted, one acre is left for natural habitat. They also subscribe to the grower relations program, locating and sourcing grapes for wine programs while building and maintaining relationships with growers. Gina Gallo considers the steps Gallo has taken "an investment in the future." Most intriguing is the use of raptors to control predators in the Petaluma Wind Gap, an area just outside of Cotati, where their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grow. "The migratory birds eat the crops just as they begin to ripen," she says, explaining that they tried netting the vines, even shooting loud cannons, but the only kaboom was the cost. Four years ago, the family hired falconer Jim Collins, whose crew of motley birds works the vineyards, picking off the grape predators. "It has worked remarkably well. The birds are amazing hunters," Gallo says.

Seven years ago, Peter Mondavi chartered a sustainable course, and today, half of the Peter Mondavi winery/Charles Krug vineyards are certified organic. But look at one of their labels and you won't read the word "organic." Chalk that omission up to "logistical hurdles," as Mondavi calls them. "Having the certification really holds our feet to the fire. It allows no fallback plan. Should infestation get out of control, there are things we can do to combat it; there's nothing as effective as conventional methods."

Mondavi advocates fish-friendly farming techniques that minimize and eliminate water compromising run-off into the Napa River. Says Mondavi, "My brother Mark and I saw that there were fewer steelhead and king salmon coming up to spawn in the Napa River. We wanted to take care of our community as it has taken care of us over the years."

The breakdown of the planet's ecosystems drives Paul Dolan. A 28 year veteran of Fetzer Vineyards, almost half his time spent as president, Dolan now works with Parducci winery and Mendocino Wine Company. Before sustainability became a buzzword, Dolan called what he was doing in the vineyard environmentally friendly. "I'm a fifth generation winemaker. Our mindset is that we're building this for our families. We want to protect the health of our surroundings. We have a responsibility to society. Environmental health and long-term sustainability is an issue. What Californians are now doing in the wine industry is a big part of who we are."

Parducci winery has joined with the California Climate Action Registry to measure and erase emissions; within three years it became the first U.S. winery to earn carbon-neutral status. Other practices implemented include a solar installation, an energy-efficiency audit in partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, biodiesel fuel for company vehicles and farm equipment, a switch from incandescent to fluorescent lighting in the winery, and a local tree planting program. To preserve the area in and around their 400 acres of 80 percent certified biodynamic, organic, and fish-friendly vineyards, Parducci purchased carbon credits, further offsetting emissions through financial investment in carbon-reducing projects such as wind power, methane capture, and forest conservation. Such lofty standards trickle down to every last detail. Bottles are packaged in chlorine-free corrugated cardboard, and labels cut from treeless paper are printed in nontoxic soy-based ink.

Dolan is interested in the triple bottom line: being economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible. These are as much the keys to corporate success and making great wine as they are to profit. "It's a different kind of return on investment."

Dr. Ann Thrupp, a Dolan protégé, leads the cause at Fetzer. As director of sustainability and organic development, she says, "Sustainable practices at Fetzer extend far beyond the vineyards." Fetzer is the largest certified grower on the north coast, with 17,000 acres of wine grapes and a full-scale organic operation. Fetzer's successful Bonterra brand boasts 100 percent organically grown grapes. Thrupp talks trash: "In 1990, we sought to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. Through an aggressive recycling program, we've reduced our landfill waste by 94 percent, from 1,700 cubic yards to fewer than 60." Name it and Fetzer recycles it. The more obvious items--bottles, cardboard, paper, plastic--will find a second life, but so too will aluminum, antifreeze, waste oil, fluorescent tubes, and glass. The mantra carries over to the employee cafeteria, where anything from cut-off sandwich crusts to the aluminum foil they were wrapped in get rerouted to compost and recycle bins.

In the vineyards, heaps of grape seeds and skins--pomace--left over after autumn's pressing, get turned into compost. The thicker and woodier stems break down, conveniently reborn as landscaping mulch. Wastewater treated at the winery is reused in the vineyards. Maintaining the landscape flows beyond Fetzer property lines. Stream conservation shores up the salmon and steelhead that swim beneath the waters of Dooley Creek and McNab Creek, two important tributaries that flow into Sonoma County's Russian River.

Energy conservation is another aspect of Fetzer's sustainability program. Insulated jackets cover wine tanks and provide a 30 percent energy savings. Rammed earth walls buttress the administrative building and also act as a passive cooling system. Panels on the winery's rooftops and atop the bottling facility in Hopland collect and convert solar energy. An energy contract makes Fetzer the first--and only--winery in the world to purchase 100 percent renewable solar, wind, and geothermal energy, providing 1.1 million kilowatt hours of clean electricity annually and supplying 80 percent of the bottling plants' electrical needs.

Trucks and tractors at Fetzer run on biodiesel fuel (soy/vegetable oil). When trucks finish their delivery runs, they return with dry goods, eliminating more than 800 trips and 200,000 miles. And soon, the Fetzer brand's latest contribution to sustainability: lighter weight bottles to reduce payload on its delivery trucks. As part of Fetzer's commitment to being a global citizen, it strives to fulfill a "social contract" of fostering community connections. The company teaches English As a Second Language classes, offers ride shares, and holds community and charity programs.

Katrina Frey, Frey Vineyards' sales director, limits her use of the word sustainable, although it's clear the family-owned operation looks to build on their history of firsts. Frey was the foremost organic winery in the United States in 1980 and pioneered the biodynamic wine movement in 1996.

A vast solar array takes a bite out of the Frey family's electricity bill, with new panels on the way, rocketing the winery to 100 percent solar powered. As community leaders, the Freys support Mendocino Organic Network, a small independent group of renegades that buoy local, organic, and biodynamic farms and businesses. As well, the family's Multicultural Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture program educates and oversees interns who spend nine months on Frey's rugged land soaking in sustainable know-how. But the bottom line is the soil. "Our main mission is to protect the soil, increase its vitality and celebrate its abundance," says Frey.

"A lot of wineries," Frey continues, "just don't want to take the risks associated with going organic. We've found the quality of our wines continues to improve against conventionally produced wines." Each fall, Frey Vineyards covers its crops with nutrient-rich plants and legumes that suck nitrogen out of the air, a key principle in sustainable agriculture.

"Actual organic soil is rich in compost--and it stores carbon. It's really our most potent tool in reducing climate change. Releasing carbon in the atmosphere when plowing with industrial equipment is very reversible by covering ground with natural materials that pull it out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil.

Benziger Family Winery goes green with envy over Fetzer's comprehensive solid waste program. "We look at Fetzer in awe," says Mimi Gatens, director of sustainability for Benziger, a title whose footnote should explain that Gatens heads up outreach and educational events about organic and sustainable farming practices for growers and the broader community. But Benziger's commitment stands tall on its own. Throughout their 85 acres, the Benziger family adheres to organic and biodynamic agricultural practices. Landscape manager Francisco Soto works the soil through a variety of biodynamic farming principles, including planting cover crops and applying biologically rich compost made from recycled winery waste and manure from Benziger estate's cows.

For over 20 years, the Benzigers have practiced natural pest control. They eliminated pesticides by establishing three wildlife sanctuaries, wetlands, and gardens that contain 50 types of plants that attract pest-controlling wildlife. "We still purchase 45 percent of our grapes from growers," says Gatens. "But we're aggressive in our grower educational programs. At one time, the interaction with our growers was so limited. We'd see them once when they delivered the grapes and once when they'd pick up their check. But what we found is that growers became engaged quickly as we gained more experience in biodynamics. In 2007, all of our growers became certified through the Wine Institute's certification codification program.

"At Benziger, our biggest challenge is keeping the message authentic. We want to make sure the consumer doesn't get bogged down in what we do, but trusts what we say as we work toward higher levels of sustainability. We are always moving toward improvement, always looking for ways to make our wines better."

Hall Winery winemaker Steve Leveque is excited. This past harvest, the winery utilized a new sustainable, energy- and water-efficient site that boasts one acre of voltaic solar panels and is in the midst of attaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification (see "Greener Schemer,"). Construction materials are made up of diverted landfill--from the gypsum boards and ceramic tile to the steel studs. The building extracts 25 percent of its energy needs from the sun. "We had to sell energy back," Leveque boasts. This is the third year Hall has employed organic farming methods for its Cabernet-based estate vineyard wines, and organic certification is not far off. On balance, do sustainable principles translate to dollars in restaurant dining rooms? Leveque believes that "there's a groundswell of wine buyers wanting organic. There are many restaurants where I live in Sonoma County that will only buy organic."

Across the country, The Modern wine director Belinda Chang notes an increased interest in New York City. "We get nightly questions about organic practices, green farming, sulphur-free wines, and biodynamics. While those topics stimulate dialogues about particular wines, I don't typically see the non-use of these techniques deterring guests from ordering the wines that interest them. However, it's always easier to sell a wine that has a great story, or as we call it at The Modern, a great one-liner.

"It's funny because there was a period when many of the biodynamic wines on lists were some of the more luxurious wines: Joly Savennières, Burgundies from Leroy and Domaine Leflaive, Nikolaihof from Austria, et cetera. For these wines, the value perception is different for each guest."

On the other hand, Mark Ellenbogen, wine director at San Francisco's Slanted Door, worries that sustainable has become nothing more than a catchword du jour, tainted by many who don't really practice it or who use the word to "green-wash" conventional farming methods. "You hear it so much you have to ask, ‘What does sustainable mean?'" says Ellenbogen. "Our customers have a clear perception of what organic means. Either the wines are or are not biodynamic or organic. But we steer clear of the term ‘sustainable.' It's confusing." Avowed not to water the word down, Ellenbogen's gutsy wine list often shuns California wines altogether. But when Ellenbogen decides to add them to the list, he chooses only wines that come from organic or biodynamically farmed estates.

Michael Garcia, wine director at San Francisco's XYZ restaurant in the W hotel, reserves his deepest respect for producers who distinguish themselves by going beyond organic farming, "turning their vineyards into self-sustaining and self-contained microclimates." His wine list underscores his passion: it's filled with 350 producers who make wines according to organic, sustainable, or biodynamic principles. Along with educating guests about reds and whites, Garcia eagerly speaks the language of green, offering user-friendly definitions as applied to wines. Garcia knows he and his staff raise consumer awareness as they field more and more questions and as the restaurant's wine sales climb.

Going green in the vineyard appears to be working as bottom lines also bear green: richer, higher quality wines and profitability. Time will tell if climate-centric wine practices will improve the earth's eco-state. But in the here and now, these crusaders recognize the financial investment, time, and philosophical risks associated with sustainability--and believe they're worth taking.