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Sustainability: a transatlantic conversation with California Wines

Published:  13 August, 2019

Harpers and California Wine Institute hosted an insightful and far-reaching seminar at London’s Design Museum, delivering the core message that the wine world is well-placed to better engage consumers in supporting the true costs of advancing sustainability. Andrew Catchpole reports

The opening presentation

Highlights from the introductory talk by sustainability expert and Napa producer Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines

“There are a lot of crossroads in front of us and a lot of decisions to make on what direction constitutes forward. I’d like to think we can look back and look forward at the same time, so the best of [both].

“It make me sad, as someone who loves science, that science is equated with all of the problems, so there’s a turn away from science as a path forward to say no, we want some kind of heart-based new life that will keep us safer, and unfortunately I think it’s a little naïve.

“There are so many exciting things about science to unlock the mysteries of life and the ways that our lives will be improved by continuing to be clear-headed, without giving up the heart, to navigate this mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into as a race on this planet.

“We are lucky as an agricultural industry – we have to remember that wine is an agricultural product – but we are perversely lucky in that a lot of consumers don’t see wine as an agricultural product but a luxury good, and they are willing to spend for quality.

“So it gives us a little more flexibility in terms of investing for sustainability. In the wine grape industry in California we have found ourselves as leaders in sustainability due to the fact we make something that people are willing to pay for.

“One problem is that I don’t think someone can say ‘we farm sustainably’ – we are working towards sustainability. There are very few businesses that can tackle all the things they want to tackle.

“There are all these niggling difficulties that need to be overcome. There are financial roadblocks, regulatory roadblocks – we need the consumers, people who have the ability to continue the conversation, that can come back to the farmer to help solve all these problems as we move on down the sustainability continuum.

“The general theme is how does the land that you are managing interact with the wider landscape? Think of the farm as nature, in the farm and surrounding the farm.

“Call it utility in economics – in the wine industry utility is big. Very few people look at things strictly from a business perspective, they look at the lifestyle, making a better wine, [values] you might sacrifice some profit for. And it’s the same with sustainability. You might decide it’s worth it to take better care of this land even if you’re not maximising financial profits. I’m maximising my utility, and that’s really what it’s all about.

“Especially as farmers of wine grapes, because it is so specific, we track the maturity and compare against prior vintages and other growing regions. It’s one of the crops that has amazing records going way back, and so wine grape growers are acutely aware of climate change.


“There are all kind of different programmes now in California. The Voluntary Code of Sustainable Conduct has been adopted state-wide by the wine industry. Another example is Napa Green. There is one programme for the vineyards, one for the wineries, and it addresses carbon footprint, soil erosion, interaction with the environment, and also addresses labour. And in Napa more than 50% of vineyard acreage is certified by one of these sustainability programmes.

“This approach to managing a vineyard is now really accepted as the right way to do it, for sustainability and for wine quality. I can’t think of a single example where sustainable practices don’t improve wine quality.

“The last thing, [scientists] just did the DNA on a grape seed found in a latrine, and it was Savagnin from the Jura, but it was 800 years old. So we are using [exactly] the same varieties, but they have been propagated with no genetic evolution happening for 800 years. If you think about that, powdery mildew has three or four generations per season, evolving on our crops, but an old variety that has more resistance, or a newer variety that is more hardy – you just can’t sell it in the fine wine market.

“That is something that we really need to think about in terms of sustainability. We need to start opening up our acceptance of grape varieties that are hardier to grow.”

The Panel Debate

Sharing must necessarily lie at the heart of any serious advances towards greater sustainability. Sharing of knowledge, of innovation, of best practice and – ultimately – of a mutual goal of an equitable future for humanity in terms of environmental and socio-economic balance on the planet we call home.

This tenet formed the basis for a panel debate, which brought together voices from both the Californian and UK wine scenes, along with viewpoints from the worlds of cheese, coffee and academia.

Each panellist fed in the experiences, challenges and triumphs faced in their world, with California – a de facto leader in advancing sustainability, including its wine industry – sharing its own insights with the experts on this varied platform.

A central theme running through the debate was that wine’s position as “a non-essential luxury” places it – perhaps counter-intuitively – in a strong position to lead the way on sustainability due to its near-unique position among agricultural products as an emotive product that commands a premium.

“Looking at the wine industry and the way in which it is making a value-added product that people actively want to buy, it has in many ways freed itself from the commodity market and is a really interesting case and one we can learn from,” said Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

Dr Janina Grabs, a postdoctoral researcher of the political economy of sustainable commodity production at the University of Münster, agreed, suggesting that there should be an even greater focus on “making the argument for wine as an agricultural product”.

That, in turn, means linking it back to the land, where wine grape growers and producers – at the forefront of recording, experiencing and seeking to mitigate the effects of climate change – have increasingly engaged with the need to embrace sustainable practices to protect their land and livelihoods.

Grabs highlighted the fact that agriculture in all its forms has “been taught in a very intensive, industrial way for a couple of generations”, but was now dialling back as the ecological and environmental damage wrought by such an approach becomes ever more apparent.

“Environmental economists talk of externalities – that is, costs that are external to the price you pay, but that will incur in the long run, in terms of water scarcity, contributions to climate change, biodiversity loss and ways in which business could be cosseted,” said Grabs.


Steve Matthiasson advanced the theme, making a compelling argument for the collective need for better education to build awareness among consumers.

One big hurdle still to overcome, he said, is that while “only farmers can make farming sustainable”, increasingly sustainably-minded consumers must understand that those same farmers cannot alone bear additional costs incurred through implementing sustainable practices (which, nonetheless, will likely pay dividends down the line).

Investing in a better future costs time, resources and money. And, agreed the panel, we all need to understand and act upon the need to share our burden of this investment. The big question is how best to achieve this goal and encourage wine drinkers to support sustainable practices?

For Sergio Verrillo, founder of London urban winery Blackbook, the first step is to persuade the wider wine trade to adopt a position of greater support and understanding, and thus enable it to more naturally become a conduit for relaying positive messages of sustainability to the consumer.

“There is a lack of real understanding of what sustainability is, a lot of industry doesn’t understand the different points and how to [fully embrace sustainability], and that’s what we are trying to achieve.”

Matthiasson, who suggested that the trade’s gatekeepers have often been slow to embrace and promote wineries that are “on the journey towards sustainablity”, outlined reasons why it has become so embedded in Californian winemaking, becoming the norm for many producers and consumers alike.

“In California sustainability is part of our culture… we planted the seed and it’s become second nature, like brushing your teeth in the evening,” he said.

Drawing on the world of coffee production, where much of her academic research has been focused, Grabs adding that this goal can only be achieved through a broad consensus, including consumer buy-in, to unite all in a common aim.

Grabs highlighted ways in which differing sectors can learn from each other and draw upon parallel experiences to achieve such a goal. “There is a lot of promise [with wine] because it is not a necessity product, you don’t have to have wine to survive day to day, so in that sense, having it framed as a treat, a luxury, means it is something that you can attribute a special quality to and then move it into a different category, and coffee has an element of that too,” she said.

Grabs added that coffee, which is further down the road of engaging consumers as to why it is worth spending a premium to ensure greater environmental and socio-economic advancement, has in part achieved this by looking to wine as an example of how best to educate on quality characteristics (something wine does so well) and then (unlike much wine) making a clear link to greater sustainability.

“So much work has been done that coffee is now replicating wine in terms of educating the consumer on quality characteristics, on what makes a connoisseur and how we think about different aspects of the product, and then expanding that to include sustainability.

“Wine consumers are some of the most interested and educated consumers out there – there is so much promise in terms of bringing those two roots together,” she said.

Percival concurred, highlighting the opportunities for wine, saying that quality-focused artisanal cheesemakers have also “looked to the wine industry as one that is making an added-value product, one that people actively want to buy, in many ways freeing itself from the commodity market”, being something that cheese can and has learned from.


People in the wine trade talk a lot about telling and selling on “stories”, and rightly so, as wine often has such compelling provenance. For Matthiasson a key part of all this lies in shifting the emphasis a little to bring the aspects of that story that relate to sustainability into sharper focus.

“Wine is considered to be something of the land… but not as much of the conversation is that it was grown by a farmer – it somehow springs from the land and gets into a barrel, it’s a special thing. So it’s important when we talk about our wine to talk about the growing practices, the viticulture,” said Matthiasson. “Our logo is the pruning sheers, to

show the craftsmanship and tending of this plant – it’s amazing how few people know what that picture of secateurs is. People are very disconnected from the land.”

Pull all these strands together though and, as the thriving scene in California shows, the route to sustainability can become a central part of wine culture, with consumers not just supporting farmers in their endeavours, but actively questioning those that are not embracing a healthier future for our shared planet.