Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

California: Planning a better planet

Published:  09 April, 2020

With California standing tall as a global leader in sustainability, Andrew Catchpole joined a forum in Napa to discuss the complexities of communicating this multi-faceted concept

With many predicting that the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic will effect longer-term changes to society, including the ways in which we consume, work and interact – witness the adaptation to homeworking and fast-falling global pollution levels as countries lock down – sustainability is likely to re-emerge as a defining theme in its wake.

California has for some while now been ahead of the game, with its wine industry leading on sustainability and a majority of producers moving down myriad paths towards achievable goals. The catch, though, is that sustainability is something of a holistic concept, its many strands difficult to pin down in one simple, clearly communicable message. 

The general idea may be obvious – ‘do the right thing’ and ‘leave the planet better than you found it’. But communicating progress along several paths, be they environmental, climate related or social, is harder to do without a definitive set of fully achievable common goals. 

So how do you define a work in progress, especially if you want gatekeeper and consumer buy-in, not least to deliver the premium required in the short term to support the shift to more sustainable practices and the long-term benefits that will deliver? 

It’s a question that underpinned a recent gathering of keen minds at Ashes & Diamonds Winery in California, a session set up – in a typically transparent West Coast fashion – to exchange experiences and expertise on this hot topic, plus how to better narrate and share with the wider world sustainable progress already made. 

The event brought together UK trade and communicators with leading exponents of sustainable practices in California, which has the longest established regional sustainable wine programme in the world, at 20 years.

The challenges of progressing and communicating the drive to greater sustainability were aired, warts and all, by those at the table. 

The rub with sustainability is that it encompasses a multi-faceted approach unlike, say, organic practice, which can adhere to a clear manifesto and rules. Sustainability, on the other hand, invites “perpetual improvement” across a “range of choices”, as Wines of California’s Honore Comfort put it, with producers moving along and up a series of more sustainable paths. 

Echoing the Paris agreement on combating climate change, as writer Elaine Chukan Brown pointed
out, California’s third-party audited sustainability programme, run by the Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, draws on the on STGs (sustainable development goals) put in place by the UN. These require participants to progress collectively across various categories of improvement, but to do what they can best achieve first, before moving on to new goals. 


Difficult issue

One difficult issue is that some producers may still be using certain herbicides and pesticides, for example, while moving along other aspects of the sustainability path. This leaves the overall commitment to sustainability open to question and criticism by the more populist-minded detractors, undermining the whole movement. 

“The answer is we don’t have an answer, it’s a work in progress, but part of our culture in California is to believe in sustainability,” said Steve Matthiasson, of the eponymous family winery, urging a “free-flowing conversation” and exchange of ideas. His winery is a case study in advancing multiple aspects of best practice, with Matthiasson a noted consultant on the subject. 

“There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening in California, and the rest of the world, but there is so far to go. And growers need to know they can [embrace sustainability] because the market wants it, because the consumers are there – it needs everyone to step up and say ‘we don’t want your wine if you aren’t doing these things’,” he added. 

The obvious first response, from Troy Christensen, CEO of UK-based Enotria & Coe, was to pose the question as to what ‘sustainability’ actually means, and whether it can be summed up in a simple sentence or tagline to facilitate ease of communication, to trade customers, and on to their wine-buying consumers – especially if they are to be asked to pay a premium. 

This cut to the heart of the inherent issue in explaining what is a simple enough concept, but with so many strands to fold in. 

Matthiasson’s definition, that “this piece of Mother Earth that is growing the wine we are drinking today is enhanced, not degraded, over time” – with further provisos that the broader environmental and community impact also has to be a net positive – was a good shot at summing it up. 

But this remained, for Christensen, too diffuse to “make a nice little concrete slogan to communicate the good stuff that you are doing, something short and pithy”, to get out in front of the big accounts – caterers, hoteliers, on-trade groups – when tenders for business go out, and not just the “interested millennials”. 

Matthiasson rejoined that this is precisely why, “as a state, a country and an international industry”, the “crazy, fragmented” world of wine needs to join together and take a collective approach, mindful too that wine is in competition with every other drinks category. 

The question as to whether moving towards greater sustainability placed additional cost burden on grape farmers and producers, and who should pick up the tab, proved a challenging one, with it being “obvious that we need to be financially sustainable”, according to Matthiasson. 

Ashes & Diamonds Winery’s owner Kashy Kahledi, a former record company executive, estimated that the sustainable practices already adopted by his company add around 10% extra in terms of costs. But the rewards would be reaped in the longer term, in terms of bolstering the wellbeing of the community, along with the greater health of the vines, soils and neighbouring environment. 

Lower CO2 emissions also result from better agricultural practice, including no till and cover crops, to help sequester carbon, while higher yields – not necessarily incompatible with high-quality fruit – and longer vine age also bring clear benefits as concern over the climate crisis ramps up. 

“The existential nature of given grape varieties here in Napa Valley, I also see that as part of the conversation,” said Kahledi, adding: “Should we be experimenting with new varieties, looking more closely at the physiology of vineyards?” 

For Cathy Corison of Corison Winery, the answer was “certainly”, with this respected winemaker suggesting the trade should perhaps swing the focus on to just how recently humankind’s interventionist and chemical-assisted assault on the planet has been, to help persuade of the necessity to embrace greater sustainability. 

“It’s useful to remember how recent all of
the intervention that has gone on, that we are disapproving off, happened – it’s really only since World War Two,” she reminded. 


Agricultural practices  

Carlo Mondavi suggested that this was a “global problem”, as relevant to Champagne or Barolo as it was in California, with all in “the same basket”. He added: “Technology and innovation need to happen in a big way, both with agricultural implements and the way we farm,” revealing that he is involved in a project that is about to go into production with an electric autonomous tractor, which big agriculture can use to cut carbon emissions and costs. 

“We calculated with the Gallos that it could save them $14m a year, just in the Central Valley, and have them go organic, which is a pretty cool idea. 

“It’s the world’s most compact tractor, a one size fits all. We have three that we’ve launched into play in the market, and we’re making another 30 of those to give as partnerships here in Napa and in Sonoma, to gather back data, and CARB (California Air Pollution Board) has opted to give 85% kickbacks if you turn it into your one tractor.” 

farming, which centres on practices that help rebuild organic soil matter, this also helping to naturally sequester CO2 in the soil, so reducing (rather than increasing) climate change. 

“To me [sustainability] is not that complicated, it’s really very simple, and it’s ethical too. Why can one generation feel like they can use everything up when we have been farming for millennia, and realising it isn’t that hard? And I don’t think it’s a lot more expensive, but you do have to pay a lot more attention,” added Corison. 

She highlighted that healthier soils, full of microbial life, using indigenous cover crops to encourage biodiversity and help with water retention, along with other sustainable viticultural practices, can and do deliver long-term payoffs, including longer vine life. This, in turn, often has the effect of delivering more restrained and balanced styles of wine more in keeping with current drinking trends. 

“Ancient vineyards are a perfect example. We’ve come to think in this valley that a 20-year-old vineyard is old and needs to be replanted, when in fact it’s just becoming mature, so it’s about getting back to fundamentals.” 

Brown made the point that viticultural thinking – much of what had been considered good practice through the 1990s and 2000s – is now changing, using rootstock as one example. 

“There was a period when you had to have lower- vigour rootstocks for wine quality, but if you are defining wine quality by more tannins and more anthocyanins, then low-vigour rootstocks are really important. But if finesses and aromatics and balance and natural acidity are important qualities, you can get that with higher-vigour rootstocks,” she said. 


Rethinking styles

Along with advancing sustainability, California has been collectively rethinking the styles of its wines, and those around the table agreed that the one played to the other, with sustainable viticultural practices allowing for greater elegance, complexity and expression of terroir. 

Matthiasson advanced the theme, saying that just as “people are more open now to different flavours in chocolate, in coffee, and types of tea”, so “wine can now be different, with people looking for different flavours, so that frees us up as an industry to allow more terroir to come through”. He added: “I can’t think of a single way in which sustainable viticultural practices and wine quality don’t dovetail, that’s the beauty of it.” 

The discussion swung on to on regenerative Corison observed: “With winemaking, even people who really like wine ask questions about winemaking, but the moment you start talking about it, their eyes glaze over. I think the same thing may happen here too. Yes they are passionate about [sustainability], but do they really care about the details? They just want to know that you are doing the right thing.” 

Christensen brought the conversation back to the consumer, saying: “But no one knows what the right thing is,” adding “there needs to be a consistency, a level playing field across California, of what the right thing is in California.” 

Jancis Robinson MW pitched in with the observation that “consumer awareness is the big thing”, adding that any message needs to be “really simple, but believable”. 

And, as Matthiasson stressed again: “It’s all a work in progress. Sustainability programmes give more flexibility, for example with agricultural chemicals than [a programme like] organic, but then they are broader than organic, because they include habitat, carbon footprint and worker protection, along with soil erosion, water usage, things like that – so it’s moving the ball forward on many fronts.” 

The answer to the question as to how best to communicate all of this to the consumer may well become easier when the world reawakes, looking for a new and (most likely) more sustainable future, in the wake of coronavirus. 

Get it right and, as Christensen said: “As perhaps the leader in the world, you could market that well – bridge the message to the consumer, with simplicity, and it would be powerful. 

“And consumer behaviour does change production behaviour,” he concluded. 

From the vineyard

Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards and Massican Winery, on the challenges of climate change 

The interesting thing about the sustainability argument is taking it back to the consumer. You have to ask yourself, what can you sell?

 We converted to organic farming in 2015 and the goal for us was a financial reason at first. In Napa Valley the average was every 25 years you flip your vineyard over. The big thing, in my eyes, is having three years in development, then a couple of awkward years, and then, at the end of its life, when 20 or 25 years old, quality declining. Then what is your peak performance? Ten or 15 years. The return on investment is terrible. 

So I said: “What is happening to us, what are we doing to the soils, what are we doing to the vines, to perpetuate this professional athlete mentality of high performance for a limited time?” 

We needed to create a longer runway and gain a greater return on investment. So we started to make the conversion to organic and saw immediately, with the capital investment and the human costs of having to
do more work, we were 20% more expensive. But we’re from Napa Valley, it doesn’t rain from bloom to harvest. We have such a great ability to farm organically on this dry, beautiful valley, without the humidity. So we should be leaders in organic farming. 

The future, based on climate science, especially for Napa Valley, doesn’t look pretty. The dry, hot climate
of Central Valley will shift right into the heart of Napa Valley and Sonoma, so we will not be able to grow the same grapes as we grow today. And if the Pacific Ocean warms up, we will become more humid. 

What we are talking about is accumulative heat, night-time temperatures. 2019 was, quietly, the third warmest year on record in Napa, because of night-time temperatures. That reduced diurnal shift over the past 25 years has changed all the things that are important for grape growing – bud-break, flowering, fruit set, veraison. The time frame between bud-break and veraison, the standard deviation, is five to seven days. That isn’t shifting up dramatically. But where we are seeing the massive shift is in the maturation of
the grape. We’re seeing peak phenolic ripeness on 9 September, while 15 years ago we were picking on 30 October – a major shift. 

Napa built its image in the mid-1990s on Cabernet Sauvignon. Parker gave 100 points to a 1994 Harlan. Everyone planted Cabernet, we went in 15-20 years to 55% of all Napa Valley planted to Cabernet because of that. We’re still a great place to grow grapes, but it doesn’t have to be Cabernet. We just need to be a great wine region, not a great Cabernet region.