The ABC’s of Sustainable Winemaking

Here’s the thing: Sustainability is INCREDIBLY important… and it’s way more achievable than you might think.

First things first: What is "sustainability" at its core?

Most people probably understand it to be an environmentally friendly practice, but I didn’t differentiate it from any of the other environmental buzzwords out there. And when too many buzzwords are buzzing around your head, it’s often easier to just swat them away and move on with your life.

Never fear, the United Nations is here to save us with an incredibly simple and (IMO) beautiful definition:

Sustainability is “[meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations.”

Fundamentally, sustainability is about compromise. It’s a recognition that there is more than one party at the table: the present, and the future. Most of us, by our very nature, live in the moment, and the present has a very loud voice.

Sustainability dictates that the future must also be heard, quiet and inconvenient as it can be. Sustainability represents the voices of those who can’t actually speak now, but who will live the consequences of our choices now. And Sip Wines wants to represent those voices, which is why we’re so proud to highlight our sustainable winery partners.

Bring in the mythbusters, it’s time to get real

Admittedly, all the various “good” practices out there can blur together and be pretty confusing. And that’s unfortunate, because I think it deters a lot of people from trying to understand sustainability. DO NOT BE DETERRED—I SHALL LIFT THE FOG OF CONFUSION AND DESTROY THE MYTHS. LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS TO FOLLOW FOR CLARITY.  

Left Coast Estate
  1. SUSTAINABILITY IS ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE ENVIRONMENT. In fact, there’s also a very strong social equity component to sustainability. Just as one example, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance includes as part of its certification assessment: “Sustainable winegrowing helps growers and vintners be stewards of both natural and human resources, preserving open space and providing scenic landscapes and contributing to their communities economically and culturally. Sustainability also helps provide a favorable environment for employees and neighbors.” So when I focus on environmental impact, remember that this is only one piece of sustainability.
  2. THERE IS NO ONE REGULATING BODY THAT CERTIFIES SUSTAINABILITY. It’s sort of vaguely like herbal supplements and the FDA in that sense, except that there ARE very legit bodies certifying sustainability (unlike a lot of those supplements I see on the shelves at a store whose name rhymes with mole dudes). (Don't get me wrong, I'm not against supplements. Turmeric is excellent.) In fact, a number of nonprofits have created rigorous standards for sustainability certification, so you might see different wineries with different certifications. It might seem confusing, but in reality, these certifications are all pursuing similar goals.
  3. DO NOT CONFUSE SUSTAINABLE WITH ORGANIC. It’s easy to do, given that there is overlap. (And in fact, there are multiple layers of “organic” just to make things really interesting—”certified organic wine” is not the same as “made with organic grapes.”) “Organic” refers to the treatment of the elements that goes into a wine--the grapes are the most obvious, in that they should be grown without pesticides, but can also include other elements, like the yeast for fermenting. Sustainability, on the other hand, is about the impact that growing and production have on the environment (as well as the social and economic components that we won’t get into today).
  4. BIODYNAMIC IS SIMILAR, BUT NOT THE SAME. Again, lots of overlap with sustainability, but a different concept. Let’s just not get into that now, to avoid confusion.
  5. SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES DO NOT INFLUENCE THE QUALITY OF A WINE. Sustainable practices have nothing to do with the elements of a wine itself. Sustainably grown and farmed grapes are no different than the grapes used to make other wines; the difference might arise in the use of solar energy to power equipment instead of traditional power sources, as just one example. (Also, I’ve had some of the sustainable wines from Sip Wines, and they were DELISH. )

Maybe this is a good segue into…

What does sustainability actually look like in (wine) practice?

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Medlock Ames

To make things even more exciting, there are both sustainable vineyards (where the grapes are grown) and sustainable wineries (where the wine is made and sold). Sip Wines partners with a number of wineries that use sustainable practices (and may also use sustainably farmed grapes), and we feature many of them in our weekly “winelights” series. The great thing about the Sip Wines website, btw, is that you can explore each winery and learn about their individual practices—and also buy their wines!

Here are just a few broad examples of what sustainability can look like in practice. At a sustainable vineyard:  

  • Instead of using pesticides to repel insects that could damage vines, planting flowers that attract insects that prey on the problematic bugs, and/or providing optimal environments for birds that eat said bugs.
  • Using natural compost as fertilizer, including composting discarded grape skins and other natural waste from the winemaking process.
  • Installing solar panels to power the various equipment used in harvesting.
  • Finding ways to preserve and recycle water, through drip irrigation systems, using wetlands as a natural water filtration system, and more.
  • Using cover crops in the vineyard rows to help reduce the carbon footprint of the vineyard.

And at a sustainable winery:

  • Prevent waste in production and sales through the use of recycling and composting.
  • Making purchasing decisions in environmentally preferable ways.
  • Reducing the winery’s carbon footprint, such as by maximizing efficient energy use or offsetting carbon emissions in shipping.

In both contexts, sustainability can also reflect a commitment to social equity and community stewardship, in everything from hiring decisions, employment practices, community engagement, and more.

And now, some good Sip Wines feelz

I’m pleased to report that sustainability is catching on, although there is still much room for improvement. At Sip Wines, however,  almost half of our winery partners have achieved sustainability certification, and that number is going up. That’s definitely a disproportionately high percentage, as compared to the actual number of sustainable wineries out there, even across certifications. In California, for example:

……… out of well over 5,000 wineries in the state.

Let’s look at another certification program, LIVE, focusing on the Pacific Northwest. Out of 38 wineries that have achieved certification, 28 are in Oregon--and Sip Wines currently features two of them.

Let me point out just one more thing: those numbers are just about certifications. As you explore the Sip Wines wineries, you’ll find that many those not currently featuring formal sustainability certification still have other certifications or use sustainable practices. This is where that overlap I mentioned between sustainable, organic, and biodynamic really comes into play.

Many of our winery partners source from certified sustainable vineyards, implement sustainable practices, or are certified organic and/or biodynamic. These embody the same principles as sustainability so even with these different certifications, they're still doing good stuff.

So yeah, they’re all rock stars.

Always look on the bright side of… wine!

I am compelled, as always, to end with what is probably an irritating level of optimism, at least for all my fellow Millennial cynics. There are three big reasons why I believe we should all be supporting sustainable wineries.

First, contrary to how it might often feel, every little bit does matter. Your purchase of one bottle of wine from a sustainable winery means dollars to fund their efforts. Second, it’s not just about money--by supporting them, you’re letting them know that you SEE their efforts, and value them. Third, when you open your bottle of sustainable wine and take a sip, you’ll know that your wine had minimal impact on the environment (and also that sip will taste very, very good).

In a way, choosing sustainable wine is your way of casting a vote for the future.  Sip Wines wants to make it as easy as possible for you to cast that vote, by giving you a platform to find sustainable wineries making some REALLY good wine. Vote for the future, drink some wine!

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