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Sustainable wines. What's the real deal?

You care about what you put in your body.

You mind what you put on your body.

You probably eat all your daily servings of fruits and veggies, and buy organic food as much possible. You know you don’t need those extra pesticides, and neither does the planet! 

You’re even aware of your environmental impact when it comes to reducing single use plastic.  Look at you… drinking wine out of your HaloVino reusable tumbler, for goodness sake!

Ladies drinking wine out of reusable wine tumblers

Now, let’s talk about that wine you’re drinking.

Is it organic?

Is it sustainable?

Is it in line with your values as a healthy, conscientious being?

Is that stuff important? It's only wine... 

While we worry so much about the food we eat, and how it impacts our health and the environment, the wine we are drinking might be the very thing we should be looking at under a microscope. 

Many people believe that wine grapes just grow nicely on the vines, get picked, stomped, fermented in barrels, and then magically turn into the tasty beverage we love so much.

It’s nice "in theory" to think that wineries are not intervening in the natural process of growing grapes, but given the sensitive nature of grape growing, a lot of it does require some level of intervention.

Hands in grapes, smashing them for wine

Growing grapes for wine unfortunately isn't as simple as most people think.

Growing wine is a tough business. Grapevines are susceptible to a wide variety of pests, infections, disease, fungus, and environmental issues.  There are so many factors that contribute to the success or the failure of a vineyard, and winemakers do what they can to minimize their risks. 

Vineyards, like other agriculture, is evolving in time. Many factors pose challenges for wine producers to grow wine naturally. 

As the population increases, the higher the demands on the agriculture industry are to produce a consistent product in volume and quality. 

Wine makers are under pressure to produce wines that taste consistent year to year. 

Bottles of wine on shelves

Rather than letting nature run its course and celebrating the variation of nature, winemakers often need to use chemicals to ensure high yielding crops with a consistent outcome. 

Climate change affects wine production, too. Not only are we seeing lower volumes produced in vineyards, but the plants are becoming less resistant to pests and mildew.  The warm air helps grapes to grow faster, but the humidity and rain make them more prone to disease and fungal growth.

Certain varietals are less resistant to pests than others, requiring a lot more chemical pesticides to be used to grow them. These include a number of wine grapes grown in Europe, like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Reisling.

Insect invasion? Fungus? Disease? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Back in the good ole’ days, wine growers used to spend more time in the fields with their vines, seeing what they needed and when. 

Now, common practice is to just spray everything prophylactically. This impacts human health and the environment. Pesticides affect our air, soil, and water quality, and impact more than just the vineyard they are being used on. Bees, birds, and other helpful critters suffer because of pesticide use. 

These toxic chemicals also significantly affect the people working in the fields, tending to and harvesting the grapes used in our wines.

France saw a number of lawsuits emerging several years ago as workers were becoming ill with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and other chronic conditions from working in the fields. Read more here. 

Perhaps this was one of the factors leading France to embrace a more organic strategy.

Pesticides are still widely used in wine regions, but there is hope. 

Wine producers know that it will help their image to go green, or at least to portray the image of sustainability.  

Despite its image, France is one of the most prolific users of pesticides in all of Europe. While only 3% of French agricultural land is used for growing wine grapes, this agriculture sector uses 20% of the country’s pesticides. 

In 2008, France adopted an aggressive plan to decrease pesticides by 50%. But, instead of declining, national pesticide use increased by 12%, mirroring a rise in farm production. France has, in the last year, taken a new approach and is re-committing itself to becoming more sustainable and less dependent on chemicals to produce wines. 

The French government is creating a rigid set of standards with the intent to have 50% of it’s wineries reach environmental certification by 2025.

California, well-known for it’s long stretching rolling hills of wine country, is a big customer to companies selling pesticides and herbicides. Thousands of tons of these chemicals are used in California every year.

More and more wine makers are going green. 

Luckily, organizations such as Greenpeace and France Nature Envirronnement, along with consumers, are putting pressure on wine producers to take sustainability seriously.Woman at the store reading wine labels

Most California wine-growers are adopting environmentally-friendly operational standards, too. About 25% of the state’s vineyards are now certified sustainable, and Sonoma is committing to become the first 100% sustainable wine region in 2019.

Australia and New Zealand are following the trend, as well, leaning toward practices that honor soil and water quality, and reduce the use of chemicals.

Decanter.com offers a more in depth look at how wineries in these countries are adopting more green practices. 

What is the difference between organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines?

Kendall-Jackson, the well-known wine producer in California, offers a great guide to what these three categories refer to. 

For the topic of this conversation, we are looking at sustainable wines, which Kendall-Jackson says “aim to have a winemaking process that protects the environment, supports social responsibility, maintains economic feasibility, and produces high quality wines."

"As grapes are grown, harvested, and made into wine, a multitude of environmental factors are prioritized. This includes everything from maintaining biodiversity on vineyards to ensure soil health, to implementing recycling measures that conserve water as grapes are growing, to utilizing renewable energy technology like solar, as wine is being produced.” 

When you drink a certified sustainable wine, you can relax and enjoy, knowing that your selected wine was made with care and concern for the environment. Social responsibility, economic viability, and high quality were all taken into account when creating that wine.

There is a huge push for sustainability in wine making now, and some winemakers are taking this idea to the next level.

Beautiful scene of winery rows at sunset

Some sustainability-minded winemakers are creating standards that not only reduce the amount of harmful chemicals used in growing and producing wines, but they are looking at their buildings, farming methods, and use of natural resources in addition to pesticide use. 

Living building tasting rooms, dry farming, and no-till agriculture are a few measures that green minded wine producers are pursuing. Read more here

Many sustainable wine makers are considering bottle sources, as well as using glass stoppers instead of cork, which is a limited resource.  Many also consider the impact of the land in surrounding vineyards and rural areas. 

A Melbourne biochemist has even worked out how to turn wine waste into biofuel. Talk about sustainability!

"It's complete cycle production, with every stage of the winemaking journey accounted for.”

Ok, so now what? What wines are most sustainable?

What should we be drinking now?

Looking at a wine shelf from behind a shopping cart

The Zoe report suggests making friends with your local wine shop owner. They should know which wines are sustainable and good tasting.

They also recommend choosing American wines, as standards vary country to country. 

The Zoe Report  also suggests that you opt for wines that are labeled organic, biodynamic, or sustainable. "Those looking for more eco-friendly wine options can consider a few factors: organic, biodynamic, and (generally) sustainable."

"Organic is focused on the purity of ingredients, little synthetic materials added, biodynamic is about overall holistic agricultural health and follows the cycles of the moon, and sustainable is all about mitigating and reducing waste in winemaking," she explains. "All three practices are a step forward in social and environmentally friendly winemaking and should be supported by consumers."

The top 10 sustainable wineries

According to Fast Company, these are ten best choices for sustainable wines:

  • Alma Rosa 
  • French Rabbit 
  • Frog’s Leap 
  • Benzinger
  • Demetria
  • Franzia
  • Grgich Hills
  • Bonny Doon
  • Cakebread
  • Kendall Jackson 

And that's something you can toast to! 

People socializing with wine at a table

 


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