It’s a word that consumers hear all the time: sustainable. The notion packs an element of responsibility and commitment — to the environment, to the community, to the people at work. When people hear the word sustainability they think of efforts to do more good than harm, and keep it that way.
But in the wine industry, the word can represent anything from lip service to demonstrated action. Terms like organic and biodynamic are defined, and are often the standard bearers for ecological responsibility. But some solid wineries choose not to certify. Others may be in conversion. Others go above and beyond and find those labels less than potent. Some wineries lose certification after a particularly hard season, but still hold true to values that are considered environmental and social standards. Just because a wine or winery isn’t organic or biodynamic on paper doesn’t mean it’s up to no good.
How to tell? Here are five backup factors that will help identify the behaviors behind the wine brand and facilitate an educated purchase decision.
Is Sustainable Defined?
Some winegrowing regions have incorporated the term sustainable into the official name or stamps within certification bodies. For example, Sustainable Austria was developed by the Austrian Winegrowers Association to allow producers to self-certify on several factors including climate neutrality, use of water and energy, biodiversity, social standards, and more. If a product bears the logo (shown above) consumers can be assured that the producer satisfied the steps to achieve it. In this case, the term sustainable has been defined by multiple points.
This can apply to individual producers as well. Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier and Nathalie Coipel Cordonnier are the proprietors at Château Anthionic in Bordeaux, where grapes are grown organically. But the domaine takes it further than that, defining what is being done not only for vine production, but also to improve the area around the château with agroforestry, planting trees in and near the vineyards to reduce the impact of climate change and provide a refuge for wildlife. These are acts that, for now, aren’t defined by any official certification or stamp, but the winery itself defines and communicates these efforts to help consumers understand that the wine they purchase reflects biodiverse values.
Does the Winery Do Anything for Its Neighbors?
Taking a step back, one could argue that a business that simply sustains itself could potentially be doing so at the cost of other stakeholders. Many of today’s most responsible wineries are not only taking care of their own land, people, and resources but are also helping out causes or contributing to the community.
Symington Wine Estates is by no means a small operation. As one of the most prominent wine producers in Portugal and the world, this B Corp organization uses its influence to positively impact the community and wine industry at large. The organization has a clearly stated plan and was one of the first to join the group International Wineries for Climate Action. Not only is the brand sustainable, they make a much larger impact that exceeds expressions of wine growing and making.
But this type of activity isn’t limited to wineries with a global footprint. Brooks Winery is one Oregon’s most respected producers, and for good reason. Led by Janie Brooks Heuck, this family run business donates 1% of annual revenues to support the Kiss the Ground, has planted 40,000 trees, is a B Corp, and is certified biodynamic by Demeter.
Is There A Larger Presence At Play?
Sometimes a winery will be required to demonstrate social or environmental responsibility before identifying itself as part of a larger entity. Every château in the Crus Bourgeois du Médoc classification, for example, must have obtained a High Environmental Value certification. This is codified by the French government, ensuring a property addresses four elements: biodiversity conservation, plant protection strategy, management of fertilizer use, and management of water.
LODI RULES is considered one of the strongest sustainability-focused certifications. It is exceptionally rigorous, self-defined by the organization in this way: “In agriculture, sustainability means farming in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible while also being economically viable.” The growers here pay a self-imposed grape tax to fund research and education efforts of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. What started out as a grassroots initiative by a group of family farmers has grown into 1,200+ certified vineyards throughout California, Washington, and even Israel.
Does the Organization Have a Reputable Leader?
When a wine is associated with a leader who will put their own face, family, and reputation on the line, it’s a good indicator that the product has a social and ecological ethos that would make most people proud.
An icon is Dr. Laura Catena, a physician and fourth generation Argentine vintner at one of South America’s most respected wine estates, Catena Zapata. She’s also the author of Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina and co-author of Malbec Mon Amour. Within the wine industry, Catena is so highly respected that she’s regarded as one of the most skilled voices for communicating the rich history and relevant presence of wines not only from her estate, but from Argentina as a whole. Her father, and winery proprietor, Nicolás Catena Zapata is also highly respected and a recipient of Wine Enthusiast’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Another example is Gerard Bertrand, head of a group of wine estates in the Languedoc region of France. He is a public voice on climate change, speaking from his platform of biodynamics, the method at work at in each of his vineyards. Bertrand participates in the Good Planet Foundation and the agroforestry project Objective 10,000 Trees. Balancing the ecosystem and reducing the organization’s carbon footprint are inherent goals for all wine produced by Bertrand and his team.
One of the largest complaints within the wine industry at the moment is a lack of informative labeling, particularly for ingredients and processing. It can be difficult to tell if a wine meets one’s values simply by looking at the label, even when the producer makes efforts to display as much useful information as possible. On one hand, people want to pop and pour their wines with ease, but on the other hand many wine enthusiasts relish the opportunity to research and read up on the wines they purchase. The second camp, consumers who are willing to look beyond buzzwords, will benefit from asking what a brand means when it calls itself sustainable. Often a quick internet search will reveal answers.