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Though you can hardly call them big polluters, many California wine producers are joining hands to make wine growing greener, cleaner, and more sustainable. In The International Wine Industry Greenhouse Gas Accounting Protocol, which offers guidelines for reduced emissions, healthy soil, sustainable materials, and smart use of water, winemakers have found a way to gradually make their business more environmentally friendly.
[16-01-09] red_barn_in_mustard.jpgWinter visitors to the Napa Valley wine-growing region of California are greeted by field after field of bright and cheery little yellow flowers. The grapevines themselves may be a little bare, but the lovely landscape is beautifully colored by three-foot-tall mustard grass growing everywhere among the vines. Like clover and California poppies, mustard grass is cherished rather than fought by many wine growers: the plants attract useful insects, reduce erosion, and add nutrients to the soil while improving its structure. The fields of flowers are a sign of the green wind blowing through California with wine producers in the lead.

Prompted by global concern for the environment and particularly by activist winemakers, the California Wine Institute, in collaboration with similar organizations in New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia, has developed a protocol to help wine producers take concrete steps toward sustainability. Of course the protocol can also be used by winemakers in the rest of the world. But that the initiative comes from the “New World” wine countries is no surprise, according to Paul Molleman, director of the European office of the California Wine Institute, which represents some 1,100 wineries and affiliated businesses. “A tendency toward innovation and progressive thinking is typical of the new wine countries,” Molleman says. “I don’t find that quite as much in the old wine world. In France they’re more likely to think: it was good a hundred years ago; it’s still good today.” In California, a history of pioneering spirit and hippie ethics may also have something to do with it.

Winemakers and grape growers form an advance guard in the agricultural sector. A California wine merchant once gave me a good explanation for that. Winemakers have a special [17-01-09] fusten_frog.jpgconnection to and responsibility for the land they work, he thought, because their name is on the label. They’re not like growers of sugar beets or tomatoes, whose products show up in the supermarket either processed or anonymous. Molleman agrees but adds something else: “A winemaker makes a sexy, lifestyle product.” In short, image plays an important role.
Market demand for environmentally friendly wine, therefore, is steadily increasing. The critical modern consumer just naturally likes to see a green stamp of approval somewhere on the label.
But there’s much more to the green movement in California than that. “I think ‘organic’ is ultimately less interesting than sustainable,” says Molleman. “A simple example: you can call yourself organic if, among other things, you only use natural pesticides. But what if you have to run your tractor six times over the field in order for those pesticides to work? Isn’t it better to do that just once, with a manmade product?” Well, that is a difficult question.

The Protocol, specifically designed for the wine industry, offers a complete guide to thinking about such problems. With the guidelines in hand, a winemaker studies his or her winery’s carbon footprint on three different levels: direct emissions by the winery’s own equipment (tractors, grape harvesters), indirect emissions by energy suppliers (power plants), and other indirect emissions by the winery’s partners (bottle manufacturers, transport companies).
The winemakers ask themselves questions like: How many trucks and tractors do we use and how many miles are they driven? How much energy do our generators, our boilers and coolers, and our frost fighters consume? What kind of fertilizer do we spread? How do we deal with weeds? What do we do with our waste and our waste water? How much and what kind of packing material do we use?
In a four-step process, the producer works toward an increasingly more sustainable business. (And anyone who finds the guide too complicated can attend workshops anywhere in California.)

Moral support
To date, more than 1,300 grape growers and winemakers, who together account for nearly 53 percent of all the wine made in California, have completed the self-assessment. “And not because you get a star in your book,” Molleman says, “but because producers want to know how they can best care for their land, how they can make the most efficient use of their water and fuel. And save money in the process: everyone ultimately wants to make money off it, of course.”
Also important is the feeling of community in America, which is much stronger than in Europe. Solidarity and the exchange of expertise have played a great role in the success of California wine, argues George M. Taber in his book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France, an account of the California wine-producing community’s rise to international prominence in the mid-1970s. In its first decades, the wine community strove primarily for collective quality; now, green thinking has naturally become a new common interest.

[17-01-09] zonnepanelen.jpgMolleman: “One producer begins using thinner glass, another makes its restaurant’s menu from grape peels, a third builds nest boxes for owls that eat harmful insects. People inspire one another, borrow ideas from one another.”
It’s more a grassroots movement than a political development, in other words. The California wine industry does, however, receive moral support from governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who portrays himself as rather eco-active and whose plan to drastically reduce the state’s emissions (to 2000 levels by 2010; by eighty percent by 2050) makes him a bit more progressive than the Bush administration.

Frog's Leap
One of the best examples of a green California winery is Frog’s Leap in the Napa Valley town of Rutherford.
[16-01-09] frogs_leap_red_barn.jpgOwner John Williams began making organic wines in the 1980s—long before it was fashionable. Frog’s Leap practices “dry farming,” forgoing irrigation. “We make do with what Mother Nature gives us,” says a guide leading a group of visitors around during a shower that’s lasted three days already. Under the circumstances, that sounds quite logical, but drip irrigation is the rule among California grape growers.
The winery’s delightful garden is full of orange trees and vegetables and wandering chickens. The garden feeds the employees while also attracting welcome insects, but visitors are also free to help themselves to mandarin oranges, potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Two gardeners are busy covering the earth with compost—something else the Protocol recommends.

[17-01-09] 2_barns.jpgThe heart of the Williams winery is a big red wooden barn built by an earlier winemaker in 1884. Beside it stands a gray good-looking wooden building built in 2005 for office space and a visitors’ center. Under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, the new building received a silver certificate: double-paned windows and other environmentally friendly materials were used in its construction, and the wood was either recycled or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nongovernmental organization that promotes the responsible management of the world’s forests.
According to general manager Jonah Beer, the building is heated and cooled by geothermal energy. “There’s a reservoir of warm water in the ground under the parking lot,” he explains. “We pump that water, which has a constant temperature of 64 degrees, through the building and then back into the ground. That warms the building a little in the winter and cools it a little in the summer. The cooling’s hardly necessary, by the way: the building’s built to stay cool in the summer.”

For electricity, Frog’s Leap relies completely on solar panels. “They’re up there, behind the garden,” says Beer. “Come on, I’ll show you. Shall we take the car?”
The car? I stare at him, dumbfounded.
“Well, you know, with this rain…” he laughs apologetically.
Sure, it’s raining. But I prefer to walk. Through the little yellow flowers.
[17-01-09] mustard_seed_1.jpg
translation: John Antonides

At Zero (Business-as-it-could-be)
#2, September 2008