A Growing Movement
Wineries are taking up the cause of sustaining the soil, and all the good Earth
In a recent Dilbert comic, Dogbert advises Dilbert on going green. "First stop breathing, eating and driving," he says; then "sit in the dark and decompose on some garden seeds." Fortunately, those who want to support eco-friendly wineries have better choices.
Let's clear up some confusion right away. Organic wines, which are subject to strict federal guidelines, are still rare, and not always very good. A more useful criterion is to ask how the vineyard is being managed.
Is it organic? Biodynamic? Sustainable? All of these are related, but employ different techniques and are regulated by different (sometimes voluntary) organizations. There is no one formula for working a particular piece of ground. Every vineyard has a specific history, unique soils and different growing conditions.
What is exciting about growing wine grapes is that they seem to make more interesting wines when the vineyard's dependency on chemicals is reduced and the soil is returned to natural organic richness. Most wineries that employ sustainable and/or organic vineyard practices do not make organic wines, but they often make excellent wines. And beyond better flavor, what they do is having a positive impact on rebuilding soils and wildlife habitat, conserving water and energy, and reducing the carbon footprint.
Washington wineries that are stepping upàMauriceAbeja
Five Star Cellars
L'Ecole No 41
Nicholas Cole Cellars
Patit Creek Cellars
Walla Walla Vintners
Parducci winery in Mendocino, Calif. — the first in the country to be certified carbon neutral — uses tree-free paper and soy-based inks for its printed materials, chlorine-free cardboard boxes for shipping and storage, and biodiesel fuel for its tractors. Solar panels and wind power provide more than a quarter of its energy needs. The vineyards are farmed organically, and reduce/re-use programs include on-site composting, water recycling and even methane and biogas capture from livestock. Finally, to offset the CO2 produced by fermentation, a fee is paid to an organization that plants trees that will pull the same amount from the air.
Others in the wine industry are focusing on packaging. Opici Import Co. has introduced Australian wine in B-Paks, 1-liter cartons that are recyclable and use 50 percent less energy than glass. Better still, B-Paks are shipped in rolls, so a single truck can deliver enough material to equal 500,000 glass bottles. The same capacity with glass would require 26 truckloads.
The greening trend is now reaching the retail side of the business. J.J. Buckley, an online seller of fine wines, claims to be the first carbon-neutral wine retail-and-distribution company. By analyzing such expenses as utility bills, commuting miles and even the carbon cost of its Fed-Ex shipping, J.J. Buckley bought offsets to compensate for the 30,000-plus bottles of wine it sells each month.
Though California still leads the way, interest in earth-friendly winemaking is trekking north. In July, the Oregon Wine Board and the Oregon Environmental Council co-hosted a seminar on ways to reduce wineries' resource use and carbon footprint, and providing financial incentives to do so.
Jim Bernau, president/founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, explains that his winery has already switched to biofuel in all its tractors and delivery vehicles, offers refunds on wine-bottle and wine-shipper returns, and recycles its packing material. "Most significantly," he adds, "this spring our employees formed an environmental-action committee to address areas where we can reduce our carbon footprint at work and home. Immediate initiatives include water filters (to get rid of bottled water) and on-site composting from kitchen waste."
In the Walla Walla Valley, an organization called Vinea, the Winegrowers Sustainable Trust, is guiding and certifying growers who are committed to sustainable viticulture. It's a flexible approach that allows growers and wineries to gradually restore farmland that in many instances has been rendered sterile by decades of chemical applications. So far, more than two dozen growers have joined.
Norm McKibben practices sustainable farming at the Pepper Bridge vineyard in Walla Walla. He is making his own compost and also uses compost tea, molasses and fish-compound applications as food. "We're about as close to organic as we can get without being organic," he says, adding, "the soil is basically still sterile from the century of wheat farming." Already he has seen a 50 percent increase in the organic content of the soil.
All of this takes time and costs money. "We've definitely put more money back into the vineyards then we've spent buying the land in the first place," McKibben cheerfully admits. But the rewards, say those who make the commitment, are not just in the satisfaction of doing right by the planet. "We get higher aromatics from the micro-rizae (fungi) added as a compost tea to the soil," says Leonetti's Gary Figgins. "This is another aspect of the science that young people have brought to our industry."
Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at email@example.com. Gabi Campanario is a Seattle Times staff artist.